Based on data for 3,587 adolescents aged 12-19 who took part in the 2011-16 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) in the United States, researchers have calculated the impact of consuming ultra-processed foods on the risk of obesity.
Participants were divided into three groups according to the amount of ultra-processed foods consumed.
When they compared those with the highest level (64% of total diet by weight on average) with those with the lowest level (18.5%), they found that the former were 45% more likely to be obese, 52% more likely to have abdominal obesity (excess fat around the waist) and, most alarmingly, 63% more likely to have visceral obesity.
Visceral obesity refers to excess fat on and around the abdominal organs, including the liver and intestines, which correlates closely with the development of high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood cholesterol and a heightened risk of death.
There is substantial scientific evidence of role of ultra-processed foods in the obesity pandemic, especially so for adults.
What are ultra-processed foods?
Ultra-processed foods are formulations of substances derived from foods plus numerous additives used to flavour, bleach, colour, emulsify, texturize and preserve. They contain little, if any, real food at all.
These foods are typically high in calories, unhealthy fats, added sugars and sodium and are lacking fibre and protective phytochemicals.
The altered taste and texture of ultra-processed foods make them highly palatable and habit-forming.
Examples include chicken nuggets, chicken strips, cereal bars, granola bars, fruit leather, breakfast cereals, frozen waffles, cookies, potato chips, pretzels, crackers, soft drinks, candy, processed meats, frozen dinners, instant noodles, frozen pizza and more.
Health concerns of ultra-processed foods
“Children who consume these products have proportionally less room to consume fresh produce or minimally processed foods at a time when dietary habits are being formed,” the researchers said. “By being exposed to these obesogenic foods, children and adolescents are being programmed for future health problems. It’s extremely worrying.”
Families alone cannot be made responsible for controlling this exposure, which requires a reform of the prevailing dietary system as a whole. According to the researchers, “Different strategies are possible, such as placing restrictions on advertising, especially when it targets children, and raising taxation on ultra-processed food products while at the same time improving access to fresh produce. Another vitally important measure would be to require manufacturers of these products to include clearer information on labels to help consumers make better choices.”
Source: Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, January 18, 2022.
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