A New Understanding of Processed Food

Research is finally providing reasons for why ultra-processed foods harm people’s health

Robert Roy Britt
Elemental
Published in
5 min readJun 5, 2019

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Credit: Richard Drury/Getty Images

UUltra-processed food — which contains preservatives, emulsifiers, colorings, and other added ingredients — make up more than half of all calories consumed in the United States, according to a 2016 study. That’s a problem, say medical experts, since a large body of research links processed food to unwanted weight gain and poorer health. For example, a study in the journal Circulation found a 42% higher risk of heart disease among people who ate processed meats, and another study found a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with a significant increase of greater than 10% in risks of breast cancer and cancer overall. Research published earlier this year in JAMA Internal Medicine found that higher consumption of ultra-processed food was linked to “a higher risk of early death from all causes, especially cancers and cardiovascular disease.”

But these studies didn’t show cause, just that there was an association. Like most research on the impact of processed food on human health, these studies were observational. This means researchers ask people what they typically eat (which is often hard for people to remember or share honestly), and they can’t control for other possible causes. For example, someone who eats several bags of Doritos might have worse heart health, but researchers can’t say for certain that it’s due to the chips. Perhaps the individual has a genetic risk, or they are sedentary.

But now, a new study has been able to show processed foods cause poor health. Research published May 16th in the journal Cell Metabolism, found that when people eat highly processed food like sugary cereals for breakfast or fast-food quesadillas for lunch, they consume more calories throughout the rest of the day, and gain more unintentional weight compared to people who breakfast on fruits, nuts, and other minimally processed food. The new research involved 20 people, all who were considered healthy. And while that’s a very small number of study subjects, these people were admitted into a research clinic for a month, so their diet and other variables could be strictly controlled, yielding results not found in observational studies…

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Robert Roy Britt
Elemental

Editor of Aha! and Wise & Well on Medium + the Writer's Guide at writersguide.substack.com. Author of Make Sleep Your Superpower: amazon.com/dp/B0BJBYFQCB