Chronic Disease and Ultra-Processed Foods

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that fully six in ten Americans live with at least one chronic disease, like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Obesity is also recognized as a disease by the American Medical Association; add in those who are “just” overweight, and you’ll have a hard time finding citizens that don’t run the risk of significant health issues over time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define chronic disease as a condition of one year’s duration (or more) that merits ongoing medical attention and/or curtails activities of daily living. The care required for those suffering from chronic disease runs into the trillions of dollars. This doesn’t just represent treatment for medical complications; it includes mental health issues affecting quality of life.

The prevalence of chronic disease has been rising in the U.S. for years, and it’s not just due to population increases. Advances in medical knowledge play a part. Not only do we recognize new chronic illnesses, such as chronic Lyme disease, “Long-haul” COVID syndrome, and some genetic conditions , but the criteria has been adjusted for some common problems. High blood pressure, for example, was once considered to be levels of 140/90 or greater. Now, the American Heart Association defines hypertension to be 130/80 or greater. This added many, mostly older, patients to the rolls of those requiring medical intervention.

The rise in chronic disease numbers may be related to our tendency to choose “ultra-processed” food. Ultra-processed foods have added ingredients such as sugar, salt, fat, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, and preservatives. A study by New York University revealed that ultra-processed food consumption had risen to 57 percent of American caloric intake by 2018. Examples of these foods are frozen meals, soft drinks, cold cuts, fast food, packaged cookies, cakes, and salty snacks. What is concerning is that, at the same time, the number of those suffering from chronic disease skyrocketed. This is no coincidence. Ultra-processed foods lead to the development of obesity and/or type 2 diabetes.

Yep, ultra-processed

The U.K. National Diet and Nutrition Survey confirmed that frequent consumption of ultra-processed food increased free sugars, carbohydrates, and sodium in daily diets, which increased the risk of several chronic diseases. As well, significant intake of ultra-processed foods generally meant less protein and fiber intake.

A safer alternative is the intake of unprocessed foods. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods are whole foods in which the vitamins and nutrients are intact in a natural state (or close to it). Of course, some food is minimally processed: That is, inedible parts may have been removed or the item may, for instance, have been dehydrated, boiled, frozen, or roasted in order to make it safe to eat or properly store.

How can you tell? Read the package to get an idea of the additives, like sugar, incorporated in the food in question. Some make common sense: A potato by itself is unprocessed. Baking processes it but, if the skin is retained, keeps most of its nutrients. Frying it up to make French fries ultra-processes it. A carrot is unprocessed, carrot juice is processed but retains its benefits (minus some fiber), carrot cake is ultra-processed and does not. Grains of wheat are unprocessed. Turning it into flour processes it. Making cookies, well….

Ultra-processing food depletes its nutritional value. Without the vitamins and minerals, you might as well be eating cardboard. Maybe worse: You probably won’t worsen your diabetes or heart disease if you ate a cardboard box (don’t try it, though!). To combat chronic disease, stick with minimally processed or unprocessed whole foods. You’ll be healthier for it.

Joe Alton MD

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