Ultra-processed foods, such as pastries and sweetened breakfast cereals, are popular for a reason. They’re convenient and accessible and there’s a sense of familiarity and reliability with them, says Amanda Sauceda, dietitian and founder of the Mindful Gut. “You know exactly how that food will taste,” she tells Yahoo Life.
So it’s no surprise that nearly 60% of an adult’s daily calories come from ultra-processed foods, while a child’s intake is roughly 67%. Some may even be addicted to them. A recent analysis published in BMJ that included 281 studies found that 14% of adults and 12% of children met the criteria for substance use disorder when it came to consuming ultra-processed foods, particularly with sweet and salty snacks.
Some of the signs of food addiction included a lack of control over how much ultra-processed foods study participants ate, intense cravings and withdrawal. The researchers also noted that the refined carbohydrates and fats found in ultra-processed foods "evoke similar levels" of dopamine in the brain — which plays a key role in the brain's rewards system — "to those seen with addictive substances such as nicotine and alcohol."
This comes as other recent studies keep raising existing concerns about how UPFs impact our health. Should we avoid them? Here’s what you need to know.
What exactly are ultra-processed foods?
Ultra-processed foods are packaged, ready-to-eat or -heat foods made with several manufactured ingredients. Their ingredients can include additives (preservatives, stabilizers, flavor enhancers, bulking agents, etc.), sugars, fats (particularly saturated fat) and salt. UPFs are designed to be convenient, shelf-stable and appealing.
What might surprise you is that many foods, including plant-based milks and protein bars, which are generally considered "healthy" are technically ultra-processed too.
Common UPFs include:
Sodas and energy drinks
Candies and ice cream
Pastries, cookies and cake
Instant noodles and soups
Processed meats (sausages, nuggets)
Ready-to-heat pastas and pizzas
Sweetened breakfast cereals
Protein/energy bars and shakes
How do UPFs affect your health?
The biggest concern with UPFs is that high consumption may take the place of more nutrient-dense foods and lead to nutritional imbalances or other health concerns. Studies show that diets rich in UPFs are also high in sugars, total fats and saturated fats, and low in fiber, protein, potassium, zinc and magnesium, and vitamins A, C, D, E, B12 and niacin.
“Fiber and potassium have already been identified as nutrients of concern because most people don’t get enough in their diet,” says Sauceda. Less than 10% of adults in the U.S. meet their fiber needs. She also warns that lack of nutrition could negatively affect a child’s growth and development.
Here’s what recent research says about how UPFs affect your mental and physical health:
They may lead to weight gain. A small but unique study in 2019 fully controlled the diets of 20 adults for two weeks. Researchers found that those on an ultra-processed diet consumed about 500 calories more per day, ate more carbohydrates and fat and gained an average of 2 pounds. Those on the unprocessed diet ate less and lost weight.
They can increase risk of hypertension, heart attack and stroke. A systematic review found that risk of cardiovascular disease increased by 6% for every 10% increase in daily calories from UPFs. The lowest risk of CVD was observed in diets with less than 15% of daily calories coming from UPFs. Researchers also observed that diets with higher intakes of UPFs were associated with increased risk of CVD and hypertension in middle-aged women.
Some kinds of UPFs may raise the risk of type 2 diabetes, but others may lower that risk. Multiple studies have shown that each 10% increase in total UPF consumption was associated with a 12% to 15% increase in risk of type 2 diabetes. However, a meta-analysis with about 200,000 U.S. women and men found that cereals, dark and whole grain breads, packaged snacks, fruit-based products, yogurt and dairy-based desserts were associated with lower risk for type 2 diabetes.
They can worsen kidney function, especially in adults 60 years and up. Researchers noticed that a diet rich in UPFs is independently associated with 50% or higher risk of renal function decline — beyond what was expected for age. This may be a result of diets low in fiber and high in sodium, sugars and phosphates.
They can increase the risk of colorectal cancer, but some types of UPFs may protect against the disease in women. While men with high intakes of UPFs had a 29% higher risk of developing colorectal cancer than those with the least consumption, women’s risk increased only with ready-to-eat/-heat mixed dishes. As for ultra-processed dairy products, such as flavored yogurt and dairy-based desserts, it’s possible their protective properties outweigh the harmful effects in women.
They may raise the risk for depression. A cross-sectional study showed that participants with high UPF intake had a significantly greater chance of mild depression, as well as mentally unhealthy and anxious days, compared with those with lower consumption. Another study found that over time, middle-aged women without depression who consumed high amounts of artificial sweeteners and artificially sweetened beverages were more likely to become depressed.
They may increase the risk for dementia. When observing close to 11,000 adult Brazilian residents without dementia, researchers saw a 28% faster rate of cognitive decline in those with higher UPF consumption. A similar study in the U.K. found a 25% higher risk of dementia, Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia in participants with higher intakes of UPFs.
While most research points to a negative effect of UPFs, it’s important to be aware of the limitations with these studies. Research may observe an association between eating these foods and certain health risks, but it’s difficult to determine a causal relationship. Other factors, such as smoking, socioeconomic status and physical activity, can also affect results but might not be appropriately accounted for. As with most topics, more research is needed.
UPFs aren’t all bad
Alyssa Pacheco, a dietitian from the PCOS Nutritionist Alyssa, tells Yahoo Life: “Having ultra-processed foods can sometimes be the difference between having something to eat and skipping a meal.”
Whether you’re busy or have limited access to stores with fresh produce and meats, UPFs can make healthier eating, such as flavored yogurts and soups, more attainable since including whole foods is often not realistic for most people, she adds.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 34 million people in the United States are food-insecure, and many do not qualify for federal nutrition programs for support. With rising food costs, UPFs are generally cheaper and more accessible when your food budget is tight.
What you can do
If you feel you’re having too many UPFs or just want to cut back in general, start by making small changes to your diet so you don’t suddenly feel deprived. Swap one soda a day for flavored seltzer water. Or choose plain-flavored items such as yogurt or oatmeal and add your own toppings of fresh fruit, nuts and seeds for more flavor and texture.
Our experts also recommend thinking about what you can add to your meal to make it more nutrient-dense. If you like instant noodles, throw in rotisserie chicken and frozen vegetables to up the protein and fiber. Pair fresh or frozen fruit with your ice cream for more fiber and vitamins.
Cooking from scratch is your best guarantee for limiting UPFs in your diet, for those who can. Batch cooking can make that easier so you can have meals on hand and ready to eat throughout the week.
But if you prefer your favorite UPF as is, that’s OK too, say experts. Just be mindful of the portion size and how it fits into the overall balance of the foods you’re eating throughout the day.
Maxine Yeung is a dietitian and board-certified health and wellness coach.