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What are the health risks of UPFs?

Part 2 of our blog series on ultraprocessed foods.

Are ultraprocessed foods, or UPFs, as unhealthy and damaging for our bodies as nutritionists claim? Many of us have asked this question multiple times in recent years. In Part 2 of this series about UPFs, we will dive deeper into the health risks associated with them. We’ll look at how scientists and doctors believe these types of industrial food components can harm us. 

One study run by Kevin Hall, a physiologist at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Maryland, found that those who regularly consumed UPFs ended up eating around 500 more calories per day than those who ate unprocessed foods. The participants in this study did not find the unprocessed foods any less appealing than the UPFs, so why did they end up eating more of the UPFs? One theory states that UPFs tend to be easier to eat and, thus, caused the participants to eat faster, which research has shown causes people to eat more. Blood tests also showed that those who ate the unprocessed foods had higher levels of PYY, an appetite suppressing hormone, and lower levels of ghrelin, an appetite stimulating hormone. An obesity researcher who studies eating behavior at Pennsylvania State University, Barbara Rolls, has another theory. She stated that UPFs tend to be more energy dense – meaning they contain more calories per gram than unprocessed foods – and so people tend to eat more UPFs because they generally eat the same volume of food on a day to day basis, whether it is more calorie dense or not. 

Certain UPFs, including ready-made meals, sweetened beverages, refined breads, and sweetened sauces and condiments, have also been linked to increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. An article recently published in Diabetes Care found high consumption of UPFs caused a 28% increased risk of type 2 diabetes. One particular study linked nitrites, an additive commonly found in UPFs, to the increased risk for type 2 diabetes. While nitrites are commonly and naturally found in many whole foods, things like leafy greens have nutrients and antioxidants that help to fight off diabetes.  

Several other studies have found links to cancer with elevated consumption of UPFs. Researchers at the Imperial College of London School of Public Health “found that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a greater risk of developing cancer overall, and specifically with ovarian and brain cancers. It was also associated with an increased risk of dying from cancer, most notably with ovarian and breast cancers.” An increase of UPF consumption of just 10% showed a 2% increase in cancer overall with a 6% increase in mortality, a 19% increase in ovarian cancer with a 30% increase in mortality, and a 16% increase for breast cancer mortality. “This study adds to the growing evidence that ultra-processed foods are likely to negatively impact our health including our risk for cancer,” said lead senior author of the study, Dr. Eszter Vamos. A US based study, published in the British Medical Journal, found a link between UPFs and a 29% increased risk of colorectal cancer in men. 

Putting the pieces together, there’s no denying that ultraprocessed food is an unhealthy habit and can lead to physical illness. While these points may seem obvious, it is important to take action and make changes for our own health if we are to lower our risk. Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard professor emerita of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, stated “Literally hundreds of studies link ultra-processed foods to obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and overall mortality.” It may not be an easy task to overhaul your entire diet, but in the next, and last, part of this series we will be exploring ways to reduce our intake of UPFs so we can lead healthier, longer lives. 


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Chen, Z., Khandpur, N., Desjardins, C., Wang, L., Monteiro, C. A., Rossato, S. L., Fung, T. T., Manson, J. A. E., Willett, W. C., Rimm, E. B., Hu, F. B., Sun, Q., & Drouin-Chartier, J.-P. (2023, February 28). Ultra-processed food consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes: Three large prospective U.S. cohort studies. American Diabetes Association. Retrieved March 31, 2023, from https://diabetesjournals.org/care/article-abstract/doi/10.2337/dc22-1993/148548/Ultra-Processed-Food-Consumption-and-Risk-of-Type  

 Erin McGreal RN, BSN

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