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November 08, 2023

Eating ultra-processed foods can have adverse health effects, but there are ways to cut back

The next U.S. dietary guidelines reportedly may advise Americans to avoid these products because they have been linked to obesity, cancer and other medical conditions

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Ultra-processed Foods Cody Scanlan/Holland Sentinel/USA TODAY NETWORK

Ultra-processed foods, like frozen meals or deli meats, have been linked with adverse health conditions like obesity, cancer and cardiovascular disease.

For years, dietitians have advised Americans to limit their intakes of highly processed foods like chicken nuggets, pizza, ice cream and potato chips. U.S. health officials soon may solidify these warnings by including them in the next federal dietary guidelines.

Scientific experts from the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, who issue federal dietary guidelines every five years, are examining links between ultra-processed foods and health conditions like obesity for the first time, the Washington Post reported.

The next edition of the guidelines, to be published in 2025, may warn against consuming ultra-processed foods. This would mark a shift from the guidelines focusing on individual nutrients to highlighting the ways that foods are made, including the effects of processing and additives. 

With this in mind, here's an explanation of what ultra-processed foods are, why scientists say they can be harmful and how to reduce consumption of them. 

What are unprocessed, processed and ultra-processed foods?

Unprocessed foods (also known as minimally processed foods) are in their natural — or nearly natural — states, with their vitamins and nutrients still intact. Think fresh produce, plain yogurt, fresh meat, nuts and pasta.

By contrast, processed foods have been changed from their natural states, whether by adding salt, oil, sugar or other substances. Most processed foods, like canned fish or freshly made bread, consist of two-to-three ingredients.

And then there are ultra-processed foods, which usually have many added ingredients like sugar, salt, fat, artificial colors and preservatives. Ultra-processed foods are mostly made of substances extracted from foods, like fats and starches, as well as additives like artificial colors and flavors. Examples include frozen meals, soft drinks, hot dogs, packaged cookies, salty snacks and fast food. Ultra-processed foods are generally made with ingredients that cannot be found in one's kitchen at home.

To simply illustrate the different levels of food processing: a potato is an unprocessed food, a baked potato is a processed food and french fries are an ultra-processed food.

What makes ultra-processed foods unhealthy?

Ultra-processed foods often have little or no fiber or other healthy nutrients. But they are the main source of calories in the U.S., research shows. They provide nearly 58% of the daily calories consumed by adults and about 67% consumed by children. An estimated 73% of the U.S. food supply is ultra-processed.

Dozens of recent studies have found that people who consume a lot of ultra-processed foods have higher rates of weight gain, obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other chronic diseases. Research also shows that eating too many ultra-processed foods increases the risk of dying prematurely. 

One study found that when people were put on a diet of ultra-processed foods, they consumed about 500 extra calories each day and gained more weight than when they ate a diet of mostly unprocessed foods. 

Researchers also have found that ultra-processed foods may be as addictive as smoking cigarettes, because some of the added ingredients reward the brain in ways similar to addictive substances like nicotine. A recent study linked foods with high levels of refined carbohydrates or added fats, like sweets and salty snacks, to addictive behaviors like excessive consumption, intense cravings and continued use despite adverse effects. 

Processed foods are generally safer and healthier than ultra-processed foods, experts say. Generally, the basis of a healthy diet should involve mostly fruits, vegetables, lean meats and dairy products.

How to eat fewer ultra-processed foods

Though it's not realistic for most people to cut out ultra-processed foods altogether — and the packaged foods industry notes that ultra-processed food often are more affordable — scientists advise people to avoid or limit their intake of ultra-processed foods when possible. 

Here are some tips from the American Medical Association:

• Enjoy home-cooked meals with unprocessed ingredients like fresh fruits and vegetables when possible.
• At the grocery store, spend time shopping in the outer ring where fresh fruits, vegetables and healthful proteins are located. Many supermarkets are organized with ultra-processed foods in the center aisles.
• Read nutrition labels. When purchasing packaged foods, focus on items with as few added ingredients as possible, like frozen fruits and vegetables, canned beans and canned fish.
• Speak with a health care professional about developing attainable nutritional goals. Start with small steps – like making ultra-processed foods infrequent exceptions rather than the norm.

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