The more it relies on natural foods such as fruits and vegetables and is minimally processed, the better the diet. However, modern life and the pursuit of practicality promised by ultra-processed products contribute to the increase in consumption of these products. A clear example of this relationship is that an increase in the presence of ultra-processed foods in the diet of Brazilians was noticed during the pandemic. Even athletes and exercisers are turning to industrial products that promise fitness, like shakes and cereal bars. This I’m Athlete We spoke with Maria Edna de Melo doctor of Brazilian Society of Endocrinology and Regional Metabology São Paulo (Sbem-SP) and nutritionist of Nupens Maria Alvim to understand what happens in the body when you eat ultra-processed foods.
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Fresh and minimally processed foods offer more macro and micronutrients, while ultra-processed foods are rich in chemical additives, sodium, sugar and fat — Photo: Istock Getty Images
Maria Edna de Melo, PhD, USP in Endocrinology, says that known studies on the effects of ultra-processed foods take population data into account and link their consumption to risks of obesity, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. other chronic non-communicable diseases, which are among the leading causes of death in the world.
– Since studies on ultra-processed foods started seven years ago and there is only one randomized clinical trial, it’s hard to talk about what’s going on in the body based on the literature. But it is possible to make an analogy as if we were machines. If food is fuel and that fuel isn’t good, it’s like putting bad gas in your car. If you do this for too long, the engine will be damaged. The same goes for food. The person gains weight and the body is metabolically irregular, which is more difficult to treat. Obesity is easier to prevent than to treat because when the disease occurs, hunger is greater. The person loses this fine regulation and has much more difficulty consuming less and resisting temptations, the endocrinologist says.
The endocrinologist says there’s a clinical trial that shows these industrialized products can promote weight gain. The study was conducted over four weeks and subjected the participants to diets based on alternating natural or minimally processed foods and ultra-processed foods. Within two weeks of consuming the ultra-processed foods, the volunteers gained, on average, more than 900 grams. When consuming natural or less processed foods, there was an average reduction of 900 grams over the same time period. 20 participants stayed at a clinic for four weeks. The diets were equivalent in calories, macronutrients, sugar, sodium and fiber, differing only in the degree of food processing.
– They only made things worse when they consumed highly processed foods. Participants gained weight, increased serum fat and blood sugar levels, increased blood pressure, and worsened on all measures that are markers of healthy eating – nutritionist says 20% of the population in Brazil has less ultra-processed foods, the World Health Organization (WHO) ) can reach the carbohydrate, sugar, fat, sodium, fiber and potassium goals it has stated to reduce obesity and chronic diseases by simply eating healthier foods.
What happens when you eat ultra-processed foods?
Because of their high palatability, it is difficult to control the consumption of ultra-processed foods that are high in calories and disrupt energy balance — Photo: iStock Getty Images
- Eat more. Because they are so delicious, their consumption activates the areas of the brain responsible for reward and it is difficult to stop eating;
- Increased calorie intake and impaired energy balance regulation;
- More sugar, sodium and fat consumption;
- Decreased consumption of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals;
- Increased fluid retention and bloating;
- Gaining weight. In the only randomized clinical trial to date, participants gained approximately 900 g in two weeks while consuming ultra-processed foods; so much so that the authors recommend limiting the consumption of these products as a strategy to prevent and treat obesity;
- Increased blood fat and sugar levels with dysregulation of glycemic indices and cholesterol and triglycerides;
- Changes in blood pressure, which tend to increase the risk of hypertension, especially due to excess sodium in the blood.
- The emergence of metabolic problems in large quantities and for a long time, especially if consumption is continued;
- Obesity risk;
- The development of chronic diseases such as:
- Diabetes caused by an excess of sugar and a lack of fiber and other important micronutrients;
- Arterial hypertension;
- As researches show, various types of cancer, especially breast;
- Cardiovascular diseases due to high blood pressure and increased cholesterol and triglyceride levels;
- Increased risk of death due to all these reasons mentioned above;
- Irregularity of intestinal transit;
- Increased risk of depression, as research suggests.
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Tips for avoiding highly processed foods
Plan to go to the grocery store and respect the shopping list to avoid falling into the traps of ultra-processed products — Photo: iStock Getty Images
- Remember the adage: Peel more, unwrap less. Choose natural and whole foods. The less processed the better;
- Sorry: ultra-processed products that are fortified with vitamins or sold with the promise of being healthy, such as cereal bars, can also be unhealthy;
- Plan to prepare more meals at home. It is understandable that cooking is difficult in the hustle and bustle of daily life. Therefore, planning that starts with the supermarket list is a great ally to achieve this goal;
- Avoid overly processed foods at home. When you crave something to eat, you run the risk of making this option if you have these products on hand;
- When shopping, leave the house with a list and stick to what’s in it. This way, you avoid falling into the trap of over-processed foods and still buy the right ingredients for the recipes planned for the week;
- Always bet on a balanced diet. Replacing an ultra-processed plate with a plate full of carbohydrates and animal protein won’t provide all the nutrients you need for your daily life. Include legumes, fruits and vegetables in your diet.
According to endocrinologist Maria Edna de Melo, overly processed foods compromise the regulation of energy balance. These are quite tasty and often very calorie options. Not to mention that they have low nutritional values. Because of this high flavor, it is somewhat difficult to eat. And there is this loss in this arrangement, as the body tends to conserve energy by resorting to these food products that are tasty and easy to consume.
– These products are not nutritious. They are sold highlighting features that are very tasty and not too much work: just open the package and eat. It is very difficult to control its consumption due to its high taste and its consumption reaching the pleasure zones. While the hypothalamus regulates the homeostatic appetite, which includes what we need as a source of energy to maintain functions, there’s a limbic system that doesn’t care if it needs that food and isn’t very rational when eating—explains her doctor.
Experts warn that overly processed foods are harmful to health. In a recent study, researchers from the Nucleus of Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health (Nupens) from the Faculty of Public Health at the University of São Paulo (FSP/USP) observed a direct correlation between its consumption and an increased risk of obesity. , including visceral associated with the development of chronic diseases among adolescents.
The term ultra-processed was coined by researchers at Nupens in 2009 to describe highly refined industrial products with dyes, flavorings, emulsifiers, thickeners and other additives that impart texture, color and flavor and keep the product longer, the nutritionist says. , but does not contribute nutrients. Maria Alvim points out that there are two problems when eating highly processed foods: First, ingestion of these chemical additives, as well as excess salt, sugar and fat; the other is to stop eating the healthiest foods that will benefit your body with more fiber, protein, and micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, and instead start consuming things that are harmful to the body. After all, it is difficult to combine an industrial frozen lasagna with a salad, for example.
– Real food is the most culturally appropriate. Our culture includes eating rice, beans, salads, not hamburgers and nuggets. When we eat real food, we socialize much more and are more likely to eat in a nicer setting than choosing a packaged product or frozen lasagna – the nutritionist observes, adding that the warning about ultra-processed foods applies to athletes and the physique, too. exercise practitioners: – There is an audience that consumes ultra-processed foods that have the myth of being healthy, diet or light. You should watch out for protein bars and shakes that have this premise. Sometimes the most practical answer is real food, such as natural juice, fruit, and nuts.
Maria Alvim He is a nutritionist, PhD in Public Health from the University of São Paulo and a researcher at the Center for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health (Nupens) at the USP School of Public Health.
Maria Edna de Melo PhD in Sciences, in Endocrinology from the University of São Paulo, president of the Society for Childhood Obesity at Hospital das Clínicas da USP, and endocrinologist at the Brazilian Society of Endocrinology and Regional Metabology São Paulo (Sbem-SP).