Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.
In the U.S., the term “junk food” is often used to describe commonly known less-healthy food categories such as candy, ice cream, and chips. However, there’s no consistent deﬁnition, and so nutrition researchers came up with the concept of ultra-processed.
The term ultra-processed “food,” if you want to call it that, describes industrial formulations that are typically seen in those long list of ingredients, which, besides salt, sugar, and fat, aren’t typically found in any cookbook––like various flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers, and other additives used to imitate real foods, or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product. This roughly corresponds to my idea of red light foods in my traffic light system. And indeed, most of what people eat are in the red: soda, ice cream, candy, cakes, most bread and breakfast cereals, TV dinner-type ready-to-heat products, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, sausages, burgers, hot dogs … . There’s been a dramatic rise of ultra-processed foods. In fact, the U.S. food supply is dominated by them. More than 200,000 products were assessed, and 71 percent were classiﬁed as ultra-processed.
And, of course, they aren’t only in grocery stores. Sugary drinks and processed junk are ubiquitous even at non-food retailers, providing pervasive cues to consume products that are dense in calories, but poor in nutrition. As a former president of Coke put it, they want to keep Coca-Cola within an “arm’s reach of desire.” Another major candy brand boasted, “We put them everywhere: grocery stores and supermarkets, gas stations and chiropractors’ offices, bowling alleys and grocery stores, which we already mentioned. Not sorry.”
So, this is where we are today. What is the proportion of food consumed by U.S. children and adolescents that’s classified as junk? An unbelievable 56 percent to 70 percent of what our children and teens eat over the entire day is junk. Okay, yeah, but kids will be kids. In the United States of America, more than half of the calories taken in across the board are junk. In fact, around the world, ultra-processed foods consistently account for more than 50 percent of our dietary caloric intake in the higher-income countries. No wonder that unhealthy diets are humanity’s greatest killer, the leading risk factor for death on planet earth.
What exactly are the health consequences? The biological effects of modern foods have been studied using rats, showing they gorge themselves into dramatic weight gain, inflammation, and metabolic and cognitive abnormalities. And just as ultra-processed foods were taking over, a new eating disorder was recognized––binge eating, which grew into the most common form of eating disorder. And not surprisingly, binge foods were found to be 100 percent ultra-processed. No surprise, because these foods are engineered so you can’t have just one. People don’t tend to binge on broccoli.
About 9 out of 10 studies found that ultra-processed food consumption was associated with adverse health outcomes––not just obesity, but cancer, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, frailty, and all-cause mortality, meaning living a shorter life. Studies on youth add asthma to the list, as well as higher DNA damage. Not a single study reported an association between ultra-processed foods and beneficial health outcomes.
In contrast, populations with low meat consumption, high fiber, and minimally processed food intake have far less chronic diseases, enjoy lower obesity rates, and live longer disease-free. But most findings were derived from observational studies. You don’t know for sure if ultra-processed foods themselves are to blame, until you put it to the test.
There had never been a randomized controlled trial on ultra-processed foods until now. Twenty people were essentially locked in a hospital ward, and received both ultra-processed and unprocessed diets for 14 days each, and here’s the kicker. Diets were matched for presented calories, sugar, fat, ﬁber, and macronutrients. See, in response to criticism, manufacturers are now proposing reformulating their products, keeping them ultra-processed but just tweaking them by adding some fiber, for instance, or reducing the sugar, fat, or salt. So, that’s why the researchers wanted to give the study subjects the same amount of calories, sugar, fat, ﬁber, carbs, and protein in each of the two diets in order to try to tease out the effect of ultra-processing. So, for instance, instead of giving people Cheerios and a muffin for breakfast in the ultra-processed weeks, or like egg and cheese muffin with turkey bacon and OJ, they gave people oatmeal with blueberries and almonds. Both meals had the same amount of overall sugar and fat, but the unprocessed option was presented more in whole food form. For lunch, the ultra-processed group might get a turkey sandwich with nonfat Greek yogurt, canned peaches, baked potato chips and sugar-free Crystal Light Lemonade, versus a Southwest entrée salad with black beans, avocados, and nuts, and grapes, and apples on the unprocessed diet. The same amount of calories offered, with the instruction to eat as much or as little as they wanted.
So, what happened? On the ultra-processed diet, they ate about 500 more calories a day. And so, no surprise, they gained about two pounds on the processed diet, or actively lost two pounds on the less processed diet. So, it wasn’t just the unbalanced nutrient proﬁle of ultra-processed foods. So, simply tweaking them wouldn’t magically make them healthy. But that’s what the industry would rather do. Reformulation is referred to as the “unobtrusive strategy,” creating the prospect of nutritional improvement without dietary change. But what this study showed is it may be better to limit the consumption of ultra-processed foods altogether.
Why does the industry love them so much? They’re made with dirt-cheap ingredients, like taxpayer-subsidized corn syrup, allowing for huge corporate profit margins. But at what cost? The food industry takes in over a trillion dollars, yet most of our healthcare dollars go to treat chronic disease exacerbated by these very same foods, like diabetes and heart disease. So, you could argue we lose triple what the food industry pockets. The food industry argues that in modern societies, it’s “unrealistic” to advise people to avoid ultra-processed foods, given societal time constraints and the difficulties of food prep, but this may just be acquiescing to the same propaganda and disinformation campaign that the processed food industry has used to co-opt families for decades. Those who don’t think healthy foods can’t be convenient have never met an apple.
That was a response to Dr. Lustig’s essay on processed food as a failed experiment. I don’t like his mother-blaming, but I do appreciate his prescription. “There’s only one recourse—real food”. We need to start thinking outside of the box.
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