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A Scientific Look at What Eating Ultra-Processed Foods Does to Your Body

UPFs can wreak havoc on your body.

Cereal, yogurt, chips, soda, and even gin and protein powder all have something in common – they are ultra-processed foods. On a recent episode of Health, Quickly, a Scientific American podcast hosts Tanya Lewis, and Josh Fischman discuss ultra-processed foods, how they differ from processed foods, and what they can do to your body when you eat them. 

Ultra-Processed Foods

French fries, hot dog nuggets on a white plate
Shutterstock/Phairoh chimmi

Ultra-processed foods "are the things that you can't make in your own kitchen," the hosts explain. "And that's because they've gone through some kind of industrial processing, where the ingredients have been changed in a way that you just wouldn't be able to do with domestic equipment, or there are additives to preserve the food, make it crunchier, shinier, all those sorts of things." Most UPFs are ready-to-eat and don't involve the raw ingredients they are made out of. 

Unprocessed Foods

A Variety of Fruits and Veggies
monticello / Shutterstock

Completely unprocessed food "is something basically straight from the farm or your garden, like a potato you just pulled from the ground," explains Lori Youmshajekian, an Intern at Scientific American. 

Processed Foods

close-up of woman chopping vegetables

Processed food " is kind of everything in between" ultra-processed and unprocessed. "Just washing a food can be a kind of processing. But so can chopping. And also things like canning, drying, and freezing," says Youmshajekian.

60 to 70 Percent of the Average Diet Is Ultra-Processed

Fast Food Meal

Youmshajekian also offers an estimate that almost 60 percent of what we eat in the U.S. is ultra-processed. "For kids, it's even worse — almost 70 percent of their diet is processed," she says. 

UPFs Can Lead to Obestity

Female doctor consulting with the overweight patient, discussing test result in doctor office. Obesity affecting middle-aged men's health. Concept of health risks of overwight and obesity.

Some studies have found links between eating ultra-processed food and obesity. One recent study found that people on an ultra-processed diet versus a minimally processed diet ate about 500 calories more per day and ended up gaining about two pounds in two weeks. UPFs are more energy dense, "meaning there are more calories per bite," Youmshajekian says. 

UPFs Have Been Linked to Type 2 Diabetes

diabetes patient woman sit on couch pinch finger measure blood sugar level at home

Ultra-processed foods have been linked to type 2 diabetes, as they can majorly spike blood sugar. 

UPFs Have Been Linked to Cancer

A woman wearing a head scarf lies on a hospital bed and looks to the side in contemplation. She is wearing a head scarf and a hospital gown and there is a IV drip next to her.

There are also some studies that have linked ultra-processed foods to some types of cancer.

UPFs Have Been Linked to Mental Health Issues

A sad-looking woman curled up on the couch
Srdjan Randjelovic / Shutterstock

Ultra-processed food may be impacting your mental health. Studies have linked them to mental health issues. 

UPFs May Be Addictive

Young woman with chips on blue background

Have you ever noticed that you can eat a single apple but can't stop after one chip. "Many ultra-processed foods contain a lot of fat, sugar, salt and carbs. And that combination makes them hyperpalatable – basically, so tempting to us that we find it really hard to stop eating," says Youmshajekian. The ingredients don't exist in nature together, "and some research has shown that the combination of fat and carbohydrates are better at activating the brain's reward system compared to foods with just one of those things alone," she adds. There is research supporting that UPFs are addictive, which "might be because of a dopamine spike it causes, similar to addictive substances like nicotine and alcohol."

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Reduce Your Intake of UPFs

The fresh produce aisle of a grocery store with colorful fresh fruits and vegetables ready to be purchased by consumers.

While you don't need to completely cut UPFs out of your diet, there are things you can do to minimize your intake. For example, Youmshajekian suggests buying pre-chopped veggies instead of using cans, 

Leah Groth
Leah Groth has decades of experience covering all things health, wellness and fitness related. Read more
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