Everything you need to know about ultra-processed foods

It’s widely known that we should limit our consumption of processed foods to support our wellbeing. But what about ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed foods (or UPFs) are typically considered to be ones that you wouldn’t be able to recreate in your own kitchen. One good way to know if something is ultra processed is to look on the label. If it contains ingredients you don’t recognise, it’s highly likely to be ultra processed.

These foods are getting more and more airtime, with research continuing to show that they could have detrimental impacts for our health.

Here, we explain what you need to know about UPFs and explain some simple swaps to limit them in your diet.

What are UPFs?

Processed foods count as anything that have been altered from their original form. UPFs take this a step further.

“Ultra-processed foods are foods that have gone through multiple stages of processing and contain many added ingredients,” says nutritionist Sophie Trotman. “They’re often high in sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats, and are usually low in fibre and nutrients.

“Unfortunately, the UK has seen a significant rise in the consumption of these types of foods. This is contributing to health concerns like obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.”

Common UPFs include sugary beverages, processed snacks, and even energy or protein bars.

How can UPFs impact our health?

“Not all processed foods are bad, and some can be part of a balanced diet,” says Trotman. “However, UPFs should be limited. Balance them with a diet rich in whole, minimally processed foods like vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and lean proteins.”

According to a study in the Journal of Public Health Nutrition, people who regularly consume high levels of UPFs are more likely to report mild depression or feelings of anxiety.

“Although this area of research is still in its infancy, existing evidence suggests that UPFs can also have negative effects on gut health,” says Gabi Zaromskyte, nutritionist and founder of Honestly Nutrition.

“Emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners in UPFs may disrupt the gut microbiota, potentially contributing to gastrointestinal issues, like Crohn’s disease and inflammatory bowel disease. In a small, recent study in women, it was found that UPF consumption was directly related to negative changes in the gut microbiota, which influenced leptin resistance. Leptin is a hormone released from the fat tissue, which regulates satiety and helps maintain a healthy weight.”

Additionally, UPFs are purposefully made to be extra palatable. This makes it hard to stop eating them once you start, disrupting your sense of hunger and fullness.

“Overconsumption of energy-dense foods can lead to weight gain and metabolic syndrome, which is a combination of obesity, type II diabetes and high blood pressure,” says Gabi.

4 healthy alternatives to ultra-processed foods

While it may not be possible to completely eradicate UPFs from our diet, there are a number of simple swaps we can make to limit them.

“Ultra-processed foods and are often low in fibre and high in calories,” says nutritionist Lola Biggs. “Processed meats such as bacon, hot dogs, salami etc. all have high levels of sodium and saturated fats. Biscuits, crisps, fizzy drinks, and mass-produced bread are all ultra-processed. Try to limit these to occasional treats rather than regulars in your diet.”

Skip the bowl of cereal

“Breakfast cereals can have hidden salt and sugar,” says Lola. “Try having porridge with fruit and nuts. Or overnight oats with chia seeds to help keep you full.”

Make your own flavoured yoghurt

“Your fruity yoghurt for breakfast can also be full of added sugar or sweeteners,” says Lola. “Choose plain yoghurt instead and add a small handful of your own fruit. Fresh, dried or frozen is fine.”

Ditch processed shop-bought sauces

As Lola explains, these tend to be high in salt, sugar and additives. Making your own is a simple swap.

“Blend a handful of tomatoes, some garlic, onion, some basil or oregano and a pinch of black pepper and you have a super speedy, tasty and healthy sauce,” she says. “You can freeze this and also use it as a base for so many different recipes.”

Swap white carbs for brown

“Choose whole grain alternatives like brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa, or whole wheat bread instead of refined grain products like white bread and pastries,” says Gabi. “Get your children involved and make homemade carrot cake or apple-sauce muffins. You could even bake sourdough bread to share with your family.”

Forget the ultra-processed chips

“Instead, have homemade sweet potato wedges instead,” says Lola. “These are healthy, tasty and nutritious if you keep the skin on.

“Chop into wedges, sprinkle with paprika and a tiny drizzle of olive oil and bake in the oven until golden brown. It’s important to eat a rainbow of food daily. This includes lots of healthy veggies and fruits. You might also find it beneficial to boost your gut health by taking a daily supplement support.”

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