How ultra-processed foods affect the gut microbiome and health
While the occasional fast-food meal or pack of biscuits won’t harm you, making ultra-processed foods too much of your diet might. Sounds dramatic? That’s because it is.
Why are ultra-processed foods a problem
There is every reason to be concerned about the harmful effects of ultra-processed foods on our gut microbiome – and therefore overall health.
Today, ultra-processed foods make up more than half of the diet of the population in many countries (3), with high-sugar breakfast cereals, microwave meals, and pizzas filling up freezers and cupboards nation-wide.
Combine this with research showing links between ultra-processed foods and increased risk of lifestyle-related diseases and early death (2), there is reason to be concerned.
What are ultra-processed foods?
Looking at what ultra-processed food really means, the British Medical Journal uses the following definition:
Well, that’s the thing. We know that ultra-processed foods are designed to be cheap, tasty, durable, convenient, and appealing. They can be extremely hard to resist and even border-line addictive!
When temptation strikes, remember these facts about ultra-processed foods. They:
- Are more calorie dense, and we consume them 50% faster!
- Can damage your gut lining – causing inflammation. PS inflammation is linked to health issues such as diabetes 2 and heart disease.
- Reduce gut microbe diversity – a key indicator of good health.
Does this mean we need to get up an hour early every day to make even the granola from scratch?
No. Because I rarely believe in extremes, I would never say never even to ultra-processed foods.
When life gets in the way, any “make every meal from scratch”-plan can meet resistance. So do enjoy that occasional fast food meal and colorful sweets – just be aware of the science behind it, and enjoy in moderation.
Every effort is a win
Because the good news is that every effort counts. And knowing the science behind it, at least helps me fight off a craving or two as I pass by the all-too available snacks and pre-packaged dinners in the grocery store.
And every time we make the effort to choose unprocessed or minimally processed over ultra-processed food, it’s a win.
Because like the British Medical Journal (4) says:
- Higher consumption of ultra-processed foods (more than 4 servings per day) is associated with a 62% increased risk of all-cause mortality compared with lower consumption (less than 2 servings per day)
- For each additional daily serving of ultra-processed food, mortality risk relatively increased by 18% (a dose-response effect)
3 tips for a healthy gut microbiome
In short, here are three guidelines for ultra-processed foods and gut health:
- Avoid ultra-processed foods when possible
- Choose fresh foods and / or foods with “real” ingredients when you shop
- Make meals from scratch when you can
So, while I agree whole-heartedly with the researchers quoted in the British Medical Journal study that “policies to limit ultra-processed food intake are urgently needed”, I’m happy to know that every effort to eat healthy counts!
NOTE: This does not constitute medical advice. Seek advice from a healthcare professional as needed
The trouble with ultra-processed foods | The BMJ
Barns konsum av ultraprosessert mat og fedmeutvikling – NHI.no
To nye studier kobler ultraprosessert mat til helseproblemer (forskning.no)
New evidence links ultra-processed foods with a range of health risks | BMJ