Should your granola bar come with a warning label?
Concern is rising about the amount of ultra-processed foods in American diets, and the effect eating so many of those foods has on our health. Part of the problem, nutrition researchers say, is that lots of healthy-seeming items—many breakfast cereals, soups and yogurts as well as granola—fall into that category. Recent studies have linked diets high in ultra-processed foods to increased risks of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease and depression.
Yet there is no set definition of what makes a food ultra-processed, and scientists are still figuring out exactly why eating a lot of these foods is associated with health problems.
These foods are coming under a microscope as the U.S. government prepares the latest version of its dietary guidelines, which tell Americans which types of foods to eat and how much. For the first time, the government is asking its scientific advisory committee to consider how diets consisting of varying amounts of ultra-processed foods influence body composition and obesity risk.
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In nature, most foods are either high in fat, like meat, or high in carbohydrates (which turn into sugar in the body), like fruit. Ultra-processed foods are often high in both fat and carbs, which causes them to act more potently on the reward systems in our brains and can make them addictive, said Ashley Gearhardt, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who studies food addiction.
Foods such as ultra-processed ice cream, french fries, pizza and chips “are beyond anything our brain evolved to handle,” she said. Diets high in fat, sugar and sodium are associated with cardiovascular disease and other health issues.