Ultra-processed foods now make up more than half of calories consumed in the U.K. and U.S. Recent studies have linked increased consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) to serious health issues like obesity, diabetes, and even cancer. With busy lifestyles, these convenient and aggressively marketed foods have become a regular part of many people’s diets. However, the health risks associated with overconsumption of processed foods are now coming to light.
Health Risks of Eating Too Many Ultra-Processed Foods
A 2021 Imperial College London study found that for every 10% increase in ultra-processed foods in the diet, there was a higher risk of developing cancer. The research followed nearly 200,000 people aged 40-69 for 10 years. Higher consumption of UPFs was also linked to increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes. As rates of obesity and diet-related diseases rise, researchers are trying to better understand the risks of relying too heavily on processed foods.
Tips for Reducing Intake of Ultra-Processed Foods
While completely avoiding processed foods may be unrealistic for most, there are small steps we can take to improve our diets:
- Eat more whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains
- Limit ultra-processed snacks like chips, cookies, and frozen meals
- Read nutrition labels closely to avoid items high in sugar, unhealthy fats, and chemical additives
- Cook at home more often using fresh, minimally processed ingredients
- Try new recipes with whole food ingredients to keep meals interesting
- Drink primarily water and limit sugary beverages
The Role of Food Companies and Government Regulations
To drive positive change in the food system, companies and governments also have a part to play. Voluntary industry initiatives to offer healthier options have so far been inadequate. Investor groups are now calling for mandatory health and sustainability reporting by food companies. This data could help investors understand risks and advocate for regulations that support a healthier and more affordable food system. While individuals can make better choices, systemic change is needed to truly improve public health.
The rise in consumption of heavily processed foods has been linked to poor diets and higher risk of chronic diseases. While it may be difficult to eliminate ultra-processed items completely, making an effort to eat more whole foods prepared at home can go a long way in improving our health. With a joint effort by individuals, industry, investors and government, progress can be made toward a food system that makes eating well an easy choice.