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Breaking Down Ultra Processed Foods

Mar 20, 2022

The landscape of nutrition is ever-changing. Each new year brings new ideas, information and terminology to the table. For those not “in the know” the flood of new concepts can be overwhelming and confusing. Today, we will look at a few new terms that have made their way into people’s nutritional vocab in recent years: “whole foods”, “processed foods” and “ultra-processed foods” with the hope of clearing up any ambiguity. In addition, we will explore how the food landscape in America changed for the worse and how ultra-processed foods in particular have played a role in this change.

Whole Foods:

Whole foods are those found in their whole form without any processing. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, eggs, meat and fish are all examples of whole foods. They are nutrient dense, often being a great source of healthy vitamins and minerals. For thousands of years humans relied on nurturing an ecosystem of whole foods from hunting, gathering, and even cultivating. Having a diet rich in whole foods has benefits ranging from weight control, to increased energy, to longevity and more.

Processed Foods:

Processed foods are those made by the transformation of whole foods via some kind of, often industrial, processing. Examples would be milling grain into flour, squeezing oranges into carton orange juice, or even chopping and canning vegetables. Processed foods may fall anywhere on the health spectrum. Turning sugarcane into granulated sugar creates unhealthy processed food while turning green beans into canned green beans creates a very healthy and accessible processed food. Since the industrial revolution, humans have begun to master the processing of food. As such, processed foods have become more integrated with our diets with each passing year.

Ultra Processed Foods:

Ultra processed foods (UPFs) are those that come ready to eat or “ready to heat”. They have been actively stripped of nutrients like fiber and micronutrients that are replaced with added fat, added sugar, added salt and other potentially harmful additives. This processing makes UPFs hyper palatable, meaning they are intentionally designed to have the right combination of fat, sugar, and salt, with the right texture to be especially pleasing to the mouth and brain. They are shelf stable, highly calorie dense, highly cravable, and devoid of nutrients. They are often eaten in large quantities, but are not satiating. As a result, UPFs contribute to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Cutting out all (or a large portion of) ultra processed foods is highly effective for promoting weight control and other health benefits. Major examples of UPFs include fast food, sugary sodas, and prepackaged meals or snacks.

More About UPFs

The United States began heavily processing foods in the early to mid 1900s. Since then, the foods found in America's grocery stores and restaurants have become more and more processed. Today, the typical American gets 50-60% of their total daily calories from UPFs. The trend of American weight gain in the last 100 years has directly correlated with the amount of processed food in American diets. In the last 10 years alone, the rate of obesity in adult populations in the United States has increased by over 10%. This is likely in large part thanks to the prevalence of UPFs in our diets.

Now that we know a little about UPFs, let's elaborate more on their differences from unprocessed foods as well as how UPFs affect the consumer.

Calories and Nutrients in UPFs

Maybe the most notable differences between UPFs and non-processed foods are the amount of calories and the amount of healthy nutrients found within each. When comparing UPFs to unprocessed foods, one study found that ultra processed foods on average have twice as many calories per gram as their unprocessed counterparts. Since excess calories from food are stored in the body as fat tissue, consuming twice as many calories as you may need to feel full can easily promote weight storage over time. Despite the huge excess of caloric energy that exists in ultra-processed food, as many as 92% of Americans have one or multiple nutrient deficiencies. This is in part because UPFs, which as we now know make up a large portion of peoples diets, have but one fifth as many vital nutrients as whole foods. So if UPFs are leading to an increase in obesity and an increase in nutrient deficiency in the US, why would people eat them? There are three major reasons. Firstly, they are convenient. It doesn’t take a study or science to see that pre-made food is a time and energy saver. Secondly, they are cheap. So cheap, in fact, that UPFs cost nearly one third as much per calorie as whole foods. Most Americans love a bargain but impoverished and underprivileged Americans especially rely on heavily processed foods in order to have a reliable meal. Lastly, they taste really good. Fat, sugar, and salt are all especially rare finds in nature. As such, our brain is programmed specially to seek out foods high in any one of them, let alone all three. Food scientists carefully combine each of these into our favorite treats in a way that makes food irresistible. As we will soon find out, UPFs might be more irresistible than you realized.

How Do UPFs Affect the Brain

In early 2021, British doctor Chris Van Tulleken embarked on a controlled experiment to see the effects of switching his diet from one that is relatively healthy to one consisting of 80% ultra processed foods for one month. He experienced a number of negative changes in his body, including: difficulty digesting, bloating, headaches, heartburn, increased hunger, weight gain (over 6 lbs of fat tissue), and sleep disruption. The increased hunger Chris experienced was in large part due to the changes UPFs had on his natural hormone levels. After 1 month, the amount of Leptin (the hormone that helps us to feel full) in his body had plummeted, while the amount of Ghrelin (the hormone that creates hunger) had increased dramatically. However, the most profound change he recorded was a change in the way he perceived and thought about food. Not only did Chris find himself craving food more often, and by extent eating more often, but he also recorded real physiological changes to the landscape of his brain. Brain scans revealed that his brain had built new strong connections between the reward centers of his brain and the part of his brain that deals in repetitive automatic behavior. Not only is it abnormal for these kinds of connections in the brain to be built this quickly, but these same links are found in the brain scans of individuals with addiction. The effect of these brain changes was that he was more apt to have continuous and unconscious desires to seek out and eat junk food. In fact, he often found himself eating without hunger and couldn’t explain why. Near the end of his experiment, he remarked on how his findings could have much more severe consequences when examined in the highly susceptible developing brains of children.


The point of this blog was not to scare anyone away from their favorite fast food. No food is evil. The key to enjoying junk food, like anything in life, is moderation. While there are real dangers to eating too much ultra-processed food, having some every once in a while is relatively benign. Enjoy life! Eat plenty of delicious whole foods, exercise, and treat yourself to the occasional ultra-processed food.

If you find yourself questioning whether your diet is helping or hurting your health goals, reach out to us! As part of our Nutrition Coaching, we’ll take a look at how you’re eating and why to help you develop strategies to create healthier food habits, make healthy choices and meet your goals.


“FastStats - Overweight Prevalence.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 Sept. 2021,

Gupta, Shilpi, et al. “Characterizing Ultra-Processed Foods by Energy Density, Nutrient Density, and Cost.” Frontiers in Nutrition, Frontiers Media S.A., 28 May 2019,,1.45%20in%20%24%2F100%20kcal).

“92% Of U.S. Population Have Vitamin Deficiency. Are You One of Them?” The Biostation, 14 Sept. 2021,,Americans%20are%20vitamin%20D%20deficient.

Gupta, Shilpi, et al. “Characterizing Ultra-Processed Foods by Energy Density, Nutrient Density, and Cost.” Frontiers in Nutrition, Frontiers Media S.A., 28 May 2019,,1.45%20in%20%24%2F100%20kcal).



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