The American diet has grown to rely on more heavily processed foods over
the last 70 years, and the American waistline has grown as well. The
United States is struggling with growing rates of obesity, and a new
National Institutes of Health study indicates that eating processed
foods actually drives people to overeat.
These empty calorie, starchy, high-carbohydrate foods are not good for your teeth either, and they contribute to tooth decay by leaving sugar behind that adheres to your teeth. Then the bacteria in your mouth feeds off these sugars and releases acids, which cause tooth decay. [See our previous blog about the modern diet and its effect on teeth.]
What Is Ultra Processed Food?
Ultra-processed foods are foods that have been significantly changed from their original state with salt, sugar, fat, additives, preservatives, and/or artificial colors added. The more highly processed foods we eat, the lower the nutritional content of our diet.
Basically, foods can be broken down into the following categories:
- Unprocessed or minimally processed foods. These are vegetables, meats, seafood, grains, legumes, fruits, nuts, eggs and milk. These are real, whole foods, and they should make up the bulk of your diet.
- Processed culinary ingredients. Herbs, spices, vinegar and oil fall into this category. These are the ingredients that we use to cook and make foods taste better, and using these ingredients in small amounts is fine.
- Processed foods. Simple bread, cheese and canned beans fall into this category. These foods have been altered, but not in a way that is strongly detrimental to your health.
- Ultra-processed foods. These foods go through multiple processes, such as extrusion, molding, milling, etc., and are highly manipulated. They also contain many added ingredients. Soft drinks, sweetened breakfast cereals, packaged soups, chicken nuggets, hotdogs, fries and more fall into this category. Other foods that can fall into this category include jarred sauces, yogurt with added fruit, frozen sausages, and other reconstituted meat products.
Why Are Ultra-Processed Foods So Bad?
The recent NIH study recruited 10 men and 10 women who were healthy, stable weight adults, and randomly assigned them to one of two diets for two-week stretches. One group was fed an unprocessed diet, and one group was fed a highly processed diet (such as meals of canned ravioli and canned peaches in heavy syrup). The meals were matched for calories and nutrients; however, the researchers found that the people on the ultra-processed diet ate more carbs and fat. People on the ultra-processed diet also ate much faster.
Ultimately, study participants on the ultra-processed diet ate an average of 508 calories more per day and ended up gaining an average of 2 pounds over a two-week period. The people on the unprocessed diet lost about 2 pounds on average over the two-week period.
Typically, if something is bad for your health, it is bad for your teeth, too. Ultra-processed foods, which are estimated to provide nearly 60 percent of all the calories consumed by Americans, definitely fit this profile.
How to avoid ultra-processed foods? Stick to the sides of the grocery store (the produce, dairy and meat sections). The middle aisles are filled with boxes and bags of unhealthy foods.
Also, read the packaging. Look at the list of ingredients and buy only those foods that have fewer ingredients and ingredients you understand.