C-Force: Why We Should Be Ultra Concerned About Ultra-Processed Foods

Chuck Norris on

I wrote last week about how many health experts believe our country is in the grips of a nutrition crisis. I know I have been beating the drum on this issue of poor diet-related chronic disease for a while now. But I am certainly not alone. Nor should I be, given the scope of the problem. Harvard Health reported that an estimated 678,000 Americans die each year from chronic food illness. It is a toll said to be higher than the combined total from all the nation's combat deaths in every war in which we have been engaged, from the Revolutionary War to Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a comparative way to put this public health problem into clearer focus.

While I was preparing to go in a different direction this week, I came across more breaking news on this issue that I felt must be shared. As recently reported by National Geographic Health, a meta-analysis looking at the impact of ultra-processed food has identified direct links between higher consumption of ultra-processed foods and a greater risk of heart disease-related deaths, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, wheezing, anxiety, depression, sleep problems and deaths from all causes. The findings were published in the weekly peer-reviewed medical journal the BMJ.

According to National Geographic, these results are consistent with earlier studies. A similar report published in the journal Nutrients found that diets high in these ultra-processed foods linked to "a 44 percent greater risk of depression and a 48 percent higher risk of anxiety." One study showed that such risks occurred from consuming just 33% of calories from ultra-processed food.

"While the exact cause-and-effect relationship is still unknown, the strongest observational evidence from prospective studies leans towards the idea that eating high amounts of ultra-processed foods increases the risk of depression onset in the future," concludes Melissa M. Lane, a post-doctoral research fellow at Deakin University's School of Medicine, in Geelong, Australia, and lead researcher of the Nutrients article.

"It is common knowledge that eating too much salt, sugar, and/or saturated fat is linked to chronic inflammation, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes," writes National Geographic's Janis Jibrin. "What the public may not appreciate, however, is that all these conditions affect the brain by raising the risk for vascular dementia -- which is decreased blood flow to the brain."

It must be pointed out that "processed foods" can be healthy. It is ultra-processed items that are linked to poor health. In the NOVA classification system, ultra-processed foods are identified as "high in fat, sugar and/or sodium and typically enhanced with flavorings, dyes, artificial sweeteners and/or other additives." The ingredient lists can be long. One popular brand of breakfast bar, for example, lists 48 different ingredients.


Our attraction to these foods is absolutely by design. According to Cindy Leung, assistant professor of public health nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, "multi-billion-dollar companies create these foods to hook us." Ashley Gearhardt, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, takes it even further: "Ultra-processed foods have more in common with a cigarette than foods by Mother Nature."

Rather than give in to ultra-processed foods that, among other things, could hurt your brain, how about we embrace readily available foods that can help optimize brain health?

Lisa Mosconi is director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine and author of "Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power." In her book, she covers the latest research on the links between nutrition and brain health, which she describes as a "critical piece of our overall health, underlying our ability to communicate, make decisions, problem solve and live a productive and useful life at all ages."

Adopting these foods into your diet does not require doctor bills or costly prescriptions. "The best brain foods are readily available at most grocery stores," notes a Forbes report.


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