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Ultra Processed Foods: The Not So New Silent Killer

3 months, 3 weeks ago

4129  0
Posted on Feb 22, 2024, 4 p.m.

It is no secret that ultra-processed foods are not good for you, research has been pointing that fact out for decades, but it has become more of an issue in recent years, as demonstrated in the global rates of obesity and diabetes. The Western world is more impacted by this food trend, but it has spread to the entire globe. 

Medical professionals are trying to raise the alarm over what is fast becoming the new but not-so-new silent killer. Research from Florida Atlantic University’s Schmidt College of Medicine tries to shine a brighter light on the detrimental effects of this kind of food and draw more attention to the dire need for a dietary shift to stop the trend of death by junk food.

This type of food is mostly that of convenience, and it has become a common widespread item in diets across the nation including cereals, snacks, soda/pop, and fast food. Unfortunately, ultra-processed foods have become a staple in many homes, making up to 70% of children’s and 60% of adult food intake. Hundreds of novel ingredients never encountered by human physiology are now found in the average American diet. Not only is ultra-processed food lacking in the nutritional integrity of whole foods, but this type of food is loaded with ingredients designed to make them more appealing to our taste buds and to make us crave more but make no mistake it is far from healthy.

From fizzy drinks to packaged cereals, packaged snacks to processed meats, bags of chips to gummy treats, and take-out to frozen and prepared meals they are all loaded with ingredients that are not part of a natural diet. A glance at the ingredients will show a long list of nasties, including words that look impossible to pronounce of a range of additives and preservatives, not to mention all the extra oils, fats, sodium, and starches that are detrimental to our health and contributing to the shortening of our lifespan. Then there are emulsifiers such as carrageenan, mono- and diglycerides, carboxymethylcellulose, polysorbate, and soy lecithin that continue to strip food of healthy nutrients while introducing other ingredients into the food. 

“Those of us practicing medicine in the U.S. today find ourselves in an ignominious and unique position — we are the first cohort of health care professionals to have presided over a decline in life expectancy in 100 years,” says study corresponding author Dr. Dawn H. Sherling, associate program director for the internal medicine residency and an associate professor of medicine at FAU’s Schmidt College of Medicine. “Our life expectancy is lower than other economically comparable countries. When we look at increasing rates of non-communicable diseases in less developed nations, we can see a tracking of this increase along with increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods in their diets.”

The paper was published in The American Journal of Medicine and the commentary outlines several health risks that are associated with ultra-processed foods such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, gastrointestinal disease, and certain cancers (notably the increase in colorectal cancer in America). Some of the emulsifiers and other additives these foods contain cause chaos in our digestive tract, disrupting the natural gut microbiome and potentially leading to conditions like inflammatory bowel disease. Maltodextrin and other additives may alter the mucous layer of our gut making it more susceptible to harmful bacteria and trigger the body’s immune responses potentially leading to chronic inflammation that can lead to a variety of conditions. 

“When the components of a food are contained within a natural, whole food matrix, they are digested more slowly and more inefficiently, resulting in less calorie extraction, lower glycemic loads in general, and lower rise in triglyceride-rich lipoproteins after eating, which could result in atherosclerotic plaque,” explains study senior author Dr. Allison H. Ferris, an associate professor and chair in the Department of Medicine and director of the internal medicine residency program at FAU’s Schmidt College of Medicine. “Therefore, even if the troublesome additives were removed from the ultra-processed food, there would still be concern for an over-consumption of these products possibly leading to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.”

The commentary brings attention to similarities between the fight against ultra-processed foods and the battle against tobacco. (Are you aware that tobacco was once said to be good for you?) The commentary predicts that just as in the historical battle against tobacco there is a challenging road ahead due to the financially powerful influence of big corporations and multinational food companies' profit margins. 

“The multinational companies that produce ultra-processed foods are just as, if not more, powerful than tobacco companies were in the last century, and it is unlikely that governments will be able to move quickly on policies that will promote whole foods and discourage the consumption of ultra-processed foods,” says Dr. Sherling. “Importantly, health care providers also should remain cognizant of the difficulties that many of our patients have in being able to afford and find healthier options, which calls for a broader public health response.”

Evidence against ultra-processed foods continues to grow, yet there is still no universally accepted definition for them. The researchers recommended that healthcare professionals should strongly advocate for patients to follow a diet that is abundant in whole foods, limit processed options, and stress the health risks that are associated with ultra-processed foods. 

More importance has to be placed on American citizens and the socio-economic barriers we face such as nutritional education and access to healthier food choices. It has become increasingly urgent that a dietary change is needed to reverse the trend of declining health and to once again improve longevity and quality of life not only for future generations but for us now as well. 

As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before changing your wellness routine. This article is not intended to provide a medical diagnosis, recommendation, treatment, or endorsement. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. 

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