How Ultra-Processed Foods Affect Your Gut

September 14, 2023
How Ultra-Processed Foods Affect Your Gut

You may want to think twice about fueling up on convenience foods. Here's why.

Do you eat a lot of food out of a box, bag or package? Is it hard to tell what the ingredients are in the food you eat just by looking at it? If so, you may be eating ultra-processed foods. In the U.S., these foods are estimated to make up well over 50% of most Americans' diets. Here is some insight into what ultra-processed foods may do to your gut and your health.

What are ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed foods are products made with ingredients that are much different from foods found in nature. Although they may start with natural ingredients like corn or wheat, during processing they are stripped of nutrients, heated, pulverized, extruded and shaped. The food is also packed with flavorings and additives to make it very palatable and to increase shelf life.

Most ultra-processed foods have little or no fiber or healthy nutrients and are engineered to make you want to keep eating them. You can usually tell if a food is ultra-processed by looking at the food label. It will contain a long list of ingredients, many of which may be unfamiliar and sound more like chemicals than real food. Products like cookies, crackers, chips, cereal, frozen meals and sugary beverages are just some examples of products made using this process. Even if a product is marketed as healthy, it may be ultra-processed and not as healthy as you think.

How do ultra-processed foods affect your gut?

The processing that occurs to create these foods makes them easily absorbed by the body. In fact, it's almost as if the food is pre-digested, causing it to effortlessly run through your digestive system. Most ultra-processed foods contain refined grains, with no beneficial fiber. They may also be filled with sugar, salt, fat and additives. Since the body doesn't have to do much to digest the food, the gut readily absorbs things like sugar, which can cause spikes in blood glucose levels when digested quickly. Additionally, the digestive tract may not signal to our brain that we are satisfied after eating these foods. This may cause us to overeat and gain weight.

How do ultra-processed foods affect your health?

Because ultra-processed foods often contain little nutritional value and are absorbed so quickly by our digestive system, they may increase the risk of a variety of health problems. One study showed that people who ate the most ultra-processed foods had a 31 percent higher mortality rate than those who ate the least amount of these foods. Eating a large quantity of ultra-processed foods may increase the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and dementia, among other health conditions.

Why do Americans eat so many ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed foods are not only convenient, but they're also usually economical and tasty. For people on the go, these foods are easy to grab and require no preparation. In contrast, if you eat mostly unprocessed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein, time is needed to prepare the food before eating.

Ultra-processed foods are also infused with flavorings and additives that are designed to make you want to keep eating them. That means it can be hard to pass them by or to stop eating a food once you start. Think of potato chips, for example. It's rare that you're going to gorge yourself on a bunch of baked potatoes. But open a bag of potato chips and it can be hard to stop at a single serving size. Ultra-processed foods are specifically designed to feed common cravings and bypass the mechanisms that tell your brain you've had enough and are satisfied.

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Date Last Reviewed: August 15, 2023

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Jane Schwartz, RDN, CLT

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