Alarming research shows Aussies are throwing back ultra-processed foods at higher rates than ever, and these dietary choices have been directly linked with the obesity crisis plaguing the country – and the world.
Studies have revealed the rapid increase in ultra-processed food sales and consumption around the world and right here in Australia, drawing direct links between this pattern and our rising rates of obesity. The Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that 67% of Aussies are overweight or obese in 2018, an alarming increase of nearly 4% since 2015. If we continue along this path, we’ll be seeing around 18 million of us overweight or obese before the decade’s done. First, let’s unpack what ultra-processed actually means.
Ultra-processed vs minimally-processed food
All processing isn’t bad – in fact, some types of food processing, like fermentation, can introduce beneficial nutrients into our food. But the ultra-processed goods we see lining our shelves – think chips, frozen meals, sugary cereals – take ingredients and turn them into an unrecognisable, preservative-packed product.
Minimally-processed goods, on the other hand, refer to foods that are still kept in their recognisable forms with few additives. Canned legumes and veggies, nut mixes and wholemeal bread are just a few examples that come under the minimally-processed category – and these can be healthful additions to our diet. It’s when the processing goes to the next level – for instance, taking lentils and transforming them into sugary, salty lentil crisps – that we start to see a problem. These goods are palatable, addictive and easily accessible in supermarket stores, oftentimes marketed as healthy due to their veggie content – never mind the fact that the veggies are rendered unrecognisable in the haze of added sugars, preservatives and unhealthy ingredients we can’t even pronounce. Our tendency to rely on these foods for an afternoon energy boost or a midnight snack – or sometimes even taking over our plates at brekkie or dinner time – is driving an alarming uptick in obesity, along with other conditions like diabetes, fatty liver disease and even autoimmune conditions. Here’s why this is happening.
The problem with ultra-processed foods
Ultra-processed foods tend to be heavy on the added sugars – but it’s the fructose which is especially insidious. It’s been directly linked to the development of obesity, and this isn’t surprising when we consider how it’s processed in the body – unlike glucose, fructose can’t be further broken down by the body and, as such, requires the liver to metabolise it. Normally, our liver can handle a bit of fructose, but when we’re getting extreme doses from foods void of nutrients and fibre – like these ultra-processed breads, meat products and junk foods – it leads to the development of visceral fat; this is the dangerous kind that wraps around our abdominal organs. To make matters worse, researchers have found excess fructose can cause leptin resistance. Leptin is the hormone that tells the brain that we’re full, so without it we may still feel hungry even after a full meal. The consequences of this are – you guessed it – weight gain and, ultimately, obesity.
Eating these highly-processed foods regularly was shown to increase the risk of conditions like dementia, with studies showing people who dedicate just 20% of their daily calories to ultra-processed goods seeing a greater risk for dementia, along with experiencing a greater cognitive decline when compared to those on a more minimally-processed diet.
When considering how many of us are eating these ultra-processed products with every meal, it’s no wonder we’re seeing a host of diseases spike around the country. Along with increasing our risk for obesity, these sugary foods also throw our gut microbiome out of whack. This is because those added sugars lead to changes to the balance of gut bacteria, with research finding it can lower microbial diversity. The result? A greater risk for infection, digestive issues and an irritated stomach lining – all of which ramp up our risk for diabetes and obesity. With our heavily processed diets, Aussies are racking up over 15 teaspoons of added sugar per day – more than double the 6-teaspoon recommendation for women. With a whopping 9 teaspoons of sugar in a can of coke – one of the many ultra-processed drinks you’ll see on every corner at the supermarket – it’s not hard to soar over the limit. When we eat whole and minially processed foods, it becomes a lot harder to consume excess sugar – in fact, you might not even end up consuming any added sugars when you eat real, whole foods.
What to eat instead – JERF
Swapping out ultra-processed foods for whole, real foods is one of the first steps to a healthier gut and brain – and that’s what the JERF movement is all about. It stands for “Just Eat Real Food” and the goals are to cut out sugar-loaded processed products and opt instead for foods that are whole, minimally processed and free of preservatives and added sugars. Take a look at some of the foods that will reduce your risk for obesity:
- Whole fruits and veggies: The natural sugars in whole fruits and veggies are far gentler on our bodies, and that’s because the fibre slows their absorption and ensures our blood sugars don’t spike the way they do when we eat processed white breads, chocolates and some cereals. But be sure to consume fruit in their whole form – even juices without added sugars are detrimental to our health, and this is because they lack the fibre of their whole counterparts.
- Whole grains: Ditch the white bread, corn-based cereals and white rice and stock up on minimally-processed grains like quinoa, oats, brown rice and wholemeal bread – these grains maintain their nutritional content, including high amounts of fibre; the key to stabilising blood sugars.
- Legumes, nuts and seeds: Instead of chips, crisps and chocolate, snack on a handful of cashews or walnuts. These healthful nuts and seeds are packed with healthy fats, which not only improve our hair and skin health, they also keep us feeling fuller for long – unlike ultra-processed goods which only seem to stoke the flames of hunger. It’s research backed – studies show the fats both decrease our appetite and lower blood sugars. Legumes are also satiating with their high protein and iron content, yet again necessary for reducing sugar cravings.
- Dairy and eggs: Minimally-processed dairy sources like yoghurt, cheese and milk are all healthful additions to your diet – just steer clear of the ultra-processed varieties like flavoured yoghurts and chocolate milk.
- Fermented foods: These undergo a good-bacteria boosting process which, unlike other forms of processing, not only maintain the nutrition of the food, but improve upon it. So load up on tempeh, miso, kimchi and yoghurt for a dose of probiotics.
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