The more natural foods, such as fruits and vegetables, with minimal processing, the better the diet. But modern life and the search for the practicality that over-processed foods promise is fueling an increase in consumption of these products. A clear example of this relationship is that during the pandemic, an increase in the presence of ultra-processed foods in the diet of Brazilians was seen. Even athletes and exercisers are turning to industrial products that promise to be beneficial for fitness, like smoothies and cereal bars. OUR I am a sportsman spoke with Brazilian Society of Endocrinology and Regional Metabolology of São Paulo (Sbem-SP) Physician Maria Edna de Melo and Nupens Dietitian Maria Alvim to understand what happens in the body when you eat ultra-processed foods.
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While fresh and minimally processed foods contain more macro and micronutrients, over-processed foods are rich in chemical additives, sodium, sugar and fat — Photo: Istock Getty Images
USP Doctor of Endocrinology Maria Edna de Melo comments that well-known studies on the effects of ultra-processed foods take into account population data and link their consumption to the risks of obesity, cancer, diabetes and other chronic non-communicable diseases, which are among the leading causes of death in the world.
“Because research on ultra-processed foods started seven years ago and there is only one randomized clinical trial, it’s hard to tell what’s going on in the body based on the literature. But you can draw an analogy, as if we were machines. If food is fuel, and that fuel is not good, it’s like filling up a car with bad gas. If you do this for too long, the engine will be damaged. It’s the same with food. A person is gaining weight, and metabolic regulation is disturbed in the body.which is more difficult to treat. Obesity is easier to prevent than to treat, because the feeling of hunger increases as soon as the disease begins. A person loses this fine regulation, and it becomes much more difficult for him to consume less and resist temptations, says the endocrinologist.
The endocrinologist says there are clinical trials that have shown that these industrial products can promote weight gain. The study was conducted over four weeks, and participants were alternately subjected to a diet of natural or minimally processed foods and foods based on ultra-processed foods. In two weeks of eating ultra-processed foods, the volunteers gained an average of over 900 grams. When eating natural or lightly processed foods, they lost an average of 900 grams over the same period of time. 20 participants remained in the clinic for four weeks. The diets were equivalent in calories, macronutrients, sugar, sodium, and fiber, differing only in the degree of food processing.
“When they only consumed ultra-processed foods, they only made things worse. Participants gained weight, increased fat and serum sugar levels, showed an increase in blood pressure and a deterioration in all indicators that are markers of a healthy diet, the nutritionist comments, adding that in Brazil, 20% of the population consumes less ultra-processed foods can meet the goals carbs, sugar, fat, sodium, fiber, and potassium recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) to reduce obesity and chronic disease by simply eating healthier foods.
What Happens When You Eat Ultra-Processed Foods?
Because of their high palatability, it is difficult to control the consumption of ultra-processed foods, which are high in calories and disrupt the regulation of energy balance — Photo: iStock Getty Images
- Eat more. Because they taste so good, consuming them activates the reward areas of the brain, making it hard to stop eating;
- Increased calorie intake and dysregulation of energy balance;
- Increased intake of sugar, sodium and fat;
- Reducing the intake of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals;
- Increased fluid retention and a feeling of bloating;
- Weight gain. In the only randomized clinical trial to date, participants gained weight while eating ultra-processed foods, gaining about 900g in two weeks; so much so that the authors propose limiting the consumption of these foods as a strategy for the prevention and treatment of obesity;
- Increased blood fat and sugar levels with dysregulation of glycemic indices and cholesterol and triglyceride levels;
- Changes in blood pressure with a tendency to increase the risk of developing arterial hypertension, especially due to excess sodium in the blood.
- The occurrence of metabolic problems, especially if consumption continues, in large quantities and for a long time;
- the risk of obesity;
- The development of chronic diseases such as:
- Diabetes due to excess sugar and lack of fiber and other important micronutrients;
- Arterial hypertension;
- Several types of cancer, especially breast cancer, studies have shown;
- Cardiovascular disease associated with high blood pressure and elevated levels of cholesterol and triglycerides;
- Increased risk of death from all of the above causes;
- dysregulation of intestinal transit;
- Studies show an increased risk of depression.
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Tips to avoid ultra-processed foods
Plan to go to the market and stick to your shopping list so you don’t fall into the ultra-processed food trap — Photo: iStock Getty Images
- Remember the principle: clean more, unpack less. Choose natural and whole foods. The less processed it is, the better;
- Make no mistake: ultra-processed foods fortified with vitamins or sold with the promise of being healthy, such as cereal bars, can also be unhealthy;
- Plan to cook more meals at home. It is clear that in the hustle and bustle of everyday life it is difficult to cook. That’s why planning that starts with a list of supermarkets is a great ally to achieve this goal;
- Do not keep highly processed foods at home. When you feel like eating something, if you have these foods on hand, you run the risk of making this option;
- When you go shopping, leave the house with a list and stick to it. That way you don’t get hooked on over-processed foods and still buy the right ingredients for recipes scheduled for the week;
- Always bet on a balanced diet. Swapping processed foods for a plate full of carbs and animal protein doesn’t provide all the nutrients you need for everyday life. Include legumes, fruits and vegetables in your diet.
According to endocrinologist Maria Edna de Melo, over-processed foods disrupt the regulation of energy balance. These are very tasty and often very high-calorie options. Not to mention that they have low nutritional value. Because of these high palatability, it is difficult to eat a little. And since the body tends to conserve energy by resorting to these foods that are marketed as tasty and practical to eat, there is this loss in this regulation.
– These products are not for food. They are sold with highlighting characteristics that are very tasty and do not take much work: just open the package and eat. It is very difficult to control its consumption due to its high palatability and because its consumption eventually reaches areas of pleasure. While the hypothalamus regulates homeostatic appetite, which includes what we need as a source of energy to maintain function, there is a limbic system that does not care if it needs this food and makes it not very rational in taking food, says Dr.
Experts warn that ultra-processed foods are unhealthy. In a recent study, researchers at the Center for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health (Nupens) at the Faculty of Public Health of the University of São Paulo (FSP/USP) found a direct link between its consumption and an increased risk of obesity. including visceral, associated with the development of chronic diseases in adolescents.
The nutritionist notes that the term “ultra-processed” was coined by researchers at Nupens in 2009 to refer to highly refined industrial products with the addition of colors, flavors, emulsifiers, thickeners and other additives that add texture, color and taste and keep the product longer. but do not provide nutrients. Maria Alvim notes that there are two problems with eating ultra-processed foods: the first is the ingestion of these chemical additives, in addition to excess salt, sugar and fat; secondly, you will stop eating the healthiest foods that will benefit your body through more fiber, protein and micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, and instead start consuming what will be harmful to the body. After all, industrially frozen lasagna is difficult to combine, for example, with a salad.
“Real food is the most culturally acceptable. Our culture includes rice, beans, lettuce, not hamburgers and nuggets. When we eat real food, we are much more connected and more likely to eat in a more pleasant environment than when choosing a packaged product or frozen lasagna, the nutritionist notes, adding that the warning about ultra-processed foods is also relevant for athletes and individuals. Exercise Practitioners: There is an audience that ends up consuming highly processed foods that have a myth that they are healthy, diet, or easy. You have to be careful with protein bars and shakes that have this premise. Sometimes the most practical answer is real food, such as natural juice, fruits, and nuts.
Maria Alvim Dietitian, PhD in Public Health, University of São Paulo, and Research Fellow, Center for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health (Nupens), USP School of Public Health.
Maria Edna de Melo PhD in Endocrinology from the University of São Paulo, Head of the Childhood Obesity League at Hospital das Clínicas da USP and Endocrinologist of the Brazilian Society of Endocrinology and Regional Metabolology of São Paulo (Sbem-SP).