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Health Risks of Eating Ultra-Processed Foods

  • Published
  • By Greg Chadwick
  • Air Force Materiel Command Health and Wellness

In today’s busy world, processed foods have emerged as a convenient choice for many, sacrificing nutrition for convenience. Consuming highly or heavily processed foods on a regular basis increases a person’s risk of health complications including cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, processed food are any raw agricultural commodities that have been washed, cleaned, milled, cut, chopped, heated, pasteurized, blanched, cooked, canned, frozen, dried, dehydrated, mixed or packaged — anything done to them that alters their natural state. This may include adding preservatives, flavors, nutrients and other food additives, or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars, and fats.

Most food needs some degree of processing, and not all processed foods are bad for the body.

Minimally processed foods have a place in healthy diets. For example, low-fat milk, whole-grain or wheat breads, precut vegetables and fresh-cut greens are considered processed foods. Also, milks and juices may be fortified with vitamin D and calcium, while breakfast cereals may have added fiber. And canned fruits packed in water or natural fruit juice can be part of a healthy diet when fresh fruit isn’t easily available.

Highly processed foods are sometimes called ultra-processed foods because they have been significantly altered to include fats, sugars, salts, and hydrogenated oils. They also contain food substances rarely used in kitchens and additives whose function is to make the final product tastier or more attractive. These substances can easily be identified by reading the product’s labeling.

The additional ingredients give the foods better taste and flavor, which makes people want them more. The additives and preservatives also make the foods shelf-stable, so they last longer and can be stored in a kitchen pantry.

Examples of ultra-processed foods include:

  • baked goods, including pizza, cakes, and pastries
  • reconstituted meats, such as sausages, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and processed ham
  • potato chips and crackers
  • candy, cookies, and ice cream
  • sweetened breakfast cereals    
  • sodas, energy drinks, and other sweetened drinks

"Ultra-processed foods are typically energy-dense, high in sugars and fat, and low in fiber, protein, minerals, and vitamins," explains Dr. Cheryl Marsland, U.S. Space Force Consultant Dietitian.  "Overconsumption of these foods has been linked to poor health, weight gain, and unhealthy eating patterns. These items are engineered and manufactured to maximize profits, often using inexpensive ingredients, while being heavily marketed to consumers, which can lead to overeating and weight gain."

Marsland advocates for the military's Lifestyle and Performance Medicine whole foods, plant-forward eating approach for service members and their families. Additionally, she offers these tips to minimize intake of ultra-processed foods:

  • Read food labels: Scrutinize labels for additives like colors, flavors, and emulsifiers, which are used to enhance appearance and taste but lack nutritional value. Limit items with hydrogenated oils, added sugars, and sodium, especially if they are among the first listed ingredients.
  • Prioritize fruits and vegetables: Aim for a colorful array of fruits and vegetables with each meal. Increase your intake gradually, starting with at least one fruit at breakfast and incorporating multiple servings of vegetables throughout the day. Whole foods will keep you satiated longer and reduce the desire for ultra-processed snacks.
  • Prepare meals at home: Plan your meals in advance to avoid the temptation of fast food or vending machine options. By grocery shopping with a list and cooking at home, you can control ingredients and portion sizes more effectively.
  • Make gradual changes: Begin by reducing consumption of fried and fast foods. Opt for minimally processed alternatives such as whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy snacks like nuts, seeds, and fruits.
  • Rethink your beverages: Cut back on high-calorie drinks like alcohol, sugary sodas, and energy drinks. Replace them with water, unsweetened teas, or low-fat dairy alternatives to reduce empty calorie intake.

Marsland also underscores the importance of maintaining a balanced diet for military personnel and their families, both on and off duty. She recommends using the USDA MyPlate guidelines, which emphasize portion control and variety:

  • Make half your plates fruits and vegetables: Incorporate a diverse range of whole fruits and vegetables, aiming for a rainbow of colors to maximize nutritional benefits.
  • Find your whole grains: Choose minimally processed grains high in fiber and low in sugar. Look for the Whole Grains stamp and products with at least three grams of fiber per serving.
  • Diversify your protein sources: Include seafood, lean meats, beans, nuts, and soy products in your diet. Opt for lean cuts and prioritize plant-based protein sources for a healthier alternative.
  • Dairy and fortified soy: Select low-fat or fat-free dairy products, or fortified soy alternatives, while minimizing added sugars, salt, and fats.

Marsland advises adopting a whole food, plant-forward approach as the cornerstone of your diet to mitigate the health risks associated with excessive processed food consumption. By embracing nutritious alternatives and healthy eating practices, individuals can enhance body composition, overall wellness, and optimize performance both on and off duty. Armed with tailored resources for weight management and body composition goals, individuals can make informed choices, promoting health and resilience.Top of Form

If you are looking to improve your nutritional status, the Air Force has Registered Dietitians and Diet Technicians who can provide guidance on healthy eating. Nutrition classes and appointments are open to active-duty members, retirees, and dependents.