Ultra-Processed Foods – How damaging are they?
- 10.1% of reception age children (age 4-5) were obese in 2021/22. A further 12.1% were overweight. At age 10-11 (year 6), 23.4% were obese and 14.3% overweight.
- This means that 1 in every 5 children age 4-5 and almost 2 in every 5 children age 10-11 is overweight or obese.
- Almost 3⁄4 adults aged 45-75 in England are overweight or obese.
- Over 56% of the calories consumed in the UK is believed to come from ultra-processedfoods. This raises to 75% in children and 83% for adolescents.
- The National Institute for Health and Care Research reports that Ultra-processed foods make up almost two-thirds of Britain’s school meals.
Why Children often eat more Ultra Processed Foods
I have found these statistics a little hard to swallow, but last summer, I watched a couple in a beer garden enjoy a Meze platter of calamari, falafels, hummus, artichokes, Italian meats and olives. Their toddlers in neighbouring high chairs were also presented with their lunch. Out from a carrier bag came a smorgasbord of plastic tubs with some plain cooked pasta tubes, topped off with a packet of Wotsit crisps.
When the toddlers continued to grizzle, which was clearly irking the parents, out came bags of sweets and sugary drinks. These did not look like an uneducated couple. But it puzzles me that we still consider children some kind of different biological creation that can somehow survive on a different nutrient set than adults.
I don’t mean to preach or patronise and I know children can be tricky when it comes to food (I have had my own trials, tribulations and outright mutiny too!) but it seems like it is just too easy to give in and take the easier path.
Why Ultra Processed Foods Can Be Addictive
More concerning, according to research undertaken by Dr Chris van Tulleken is that our brains start to rewire to heighten the response to pleasure and reward in a similar way to the brains of those with alcohol or drug addiction. These ultra processed foods are designed to be addictive.
Whenever I work with children, I always ask the following question. Do you have a pet?
Often I strike gold and hit the correct answer which is a yes. I then ask if they give their dog coco pops to eat and Coca Cola or Sprite to drink. They usually laugh and tell me that it would make their dog sick. It‘s a rhetoric question really, but one that makes us think.
At my talks most people tell me they don’t eat many UPFs, so I just wanted to show how sneakily these imposters can creep into our cupboards and fridges presenting themselves as real food. They are very cunning.
What Are Processed and Ultra Processed Foods?
Many people do not realise that they are regularly consuming ultra-processed foods. This is because they are cunning, and these imposters sneak into our cupboards and fridges presenting themselves as real food.
Processed foods are those that have had minimal processing, such as milk, cheese, tinned beans etc. This processing may increase the shelf life and these foods are mostly not bad for us. Drying, milling, homogenising canning are all examples of processing food.
Ultra processed foods are food products that have been assembled in a factory. They usually come with a longer ingredients list. As a rule of thumb, if there is an ingredient you cannot confidently pronounce, it will be an UPF. They often come in cardboard and plastic packaging and make glorified claims such as low-fat to lure themselves into our baskets.
They include breakfast cereals, bread-yes BREAD, biscuits, cakes, snacks, crisps, ready meals, frozen pizza, bottled sauces, dips, vegan convenience foods, salad dressings, muesli bars, ice cream, fruit squashes, canned drinks, children’s foods and more.
It is easy to see how we over consume these foods. Cereal first thing, a sandwich, fruit yoghurt and crisps at lunch and a frozen pizza in the evening. The sugar tax has meant we consume less sugar per capita, but the BMJ states that this has not reduced the consumption of fizzy drinks, sweets or squashes.
Why are Ultra Processed Foods considered harmful to our health?
- UPFs are highly processed and are generally LOW in:
- Proteins needed for growth, repair, hormone balance, blood sugar control.
- Fibre found in wholefood carbohydrates, vegetables and other plant foods
- Healthy fats, such as olive oil, flaxseed oil, avocado oil, nuts, seeds, omega 3
- Nutrients. Vitamins, Minerals, Trace elements, Phytonutrients
- UPFs are HIGH in:
- Processed and refined fats such as seed oils (sunflower)
- Sugar. Ultra-processed foods account for 64.7% of total free sugars in the UK diet
- Refined carbohydrates that upset energy balance and blood sugar control
- Additives, preservatives, stabilisers, flavourings etc.
- UPFs do little to fill us up and instead send our blood sugars into a rollercoaster that increases our appetite, encourages us to consume more calories than we need and encourages us to store more body fat.
- According to the BDA (British Dietetic Association) the average person in the UK consumes just 18g of fibre daily. The government recommendation is 30g. Ultra-processed foods are mostly LOW in dietary fibre.
1. UK Parliament House of Commons Library. Obesity Statistics 12 January 2023 https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN03336/SN03336.pdf
2. Rauber, F. et al. (2019) “Ultra-processed foods and excessive free sugar intake in the UK: A Nationally Representative cross-sectional study,” BMJ Open, 9(10). https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/bmjopen/9/10/e027546.full.pdf
About Dominique Ludwig, Nutritionist MSc and Nutritional Therapist mBANT
Dominique Ludwig is an accomplished Nutritionist with over 30 years’ experience as a qualified nutritionist and 16 years as a nutritional therapist. The secret weapon of many high-profile clients and A-list celebrities, Dominique has been voted one of the top 15 nutritionists in the UK.
She is the founder of the Nutrition and Lifestyle Programme Renew Reset Recharge®. This is a pioneering nutrition, weight management and lifestyle programme all rolled into one. Working out of her busy practice and Meyer Clinic, Dominique has helped over a thousand clients, globally, live healthier lives. She is a regular contributor to The Times, The Sunday Times and Times 2.