If the next iteration of Canada's Food Guide is going to stand a chance of curbing the rise in obesity and diet-related chronic diseases, it needs to steer people away from ultraprocessed foods.
It's not sodium or saturated fat or sugar, in isolation, that's making us fat and unhealthy. It's our increasing reliance on ready-to-eat, ready-to-drink and ready-to-heat foods made predominantly – or entirely – from industrial substances.
Ultraprocessed foods contain little, if any, whole foods and are typically high in calories, fatty, salty, sugary and contain numerous additives. They're low in or lacking fibre, protective phytochemicals and vitamins and minerals. (Some of them, though, may be enriched with nutrients lost during processing.)
Industrial foods include chicken nuggets and strips, cereal bars, granola bars, fruit leather, breakfast cereals, frozen waffles, cookies, potato chips, pretzels, crackers, soft drinks, candy, processed meats, frozen dinners, instant noodles, frozen pizza and more. Bread and baked goods become ultraprocessed when their ingredients include substances not used in homemade baking such as hydrogenated oil, whey, emulsifiers and other additives.
Higher intakes of ultraprocessed foods have been correlated with higher obesity rates, metabolic syndrome and unhealthy blood-cholesterol levels.
Now, new research published this month in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that a steady intake of ultraprocessed foods significantly increases the risk of becoming overweight or obese.
For the study, Spanish researchers followed 8,451 healthy, normal-weight men and women (37 was their average age) for almost a decade.
Upon enrolment, their diets were assessed and their frequency of ultraprocessed food consumption was calculated.
Participants also filled out questionnaires every two years in which they were asked to report their body weight. Over a nine-year period, one-quarter (23 per cent) of the study group became overweight or obese.
People who consumed ultraprocessed foods most often – more than six servings per day – were 26 per cent more likely to put on excess weight than their peers who never, or almost never, ate these foods. That was true even after accounting for factors such as physical activity, watching TV and snacking between meals.
The researchers suspect that ultraprocessed foods increase the risk of becoming overweight by increasing total calorie intake. And thanks to their high content of fat, sugar, salt and other additives, ultraprocessed foods are intensely palatable, which makes them habit-forming.
Also, a diet based on ultraprocessed foods may lack nutrients involved in body fat regulation.
This new study can't prove that eating plenty of ultraprocessed foods causes weight gain because of its observational design. By following people forward for years and gathering data on habits, observational studies uncover only associations.
But do we really need to wait for randomized controlled trials, which can prove causation, to tell us something that, to me, seems so obvious? Especially given the fact that, according to a 2014 study, Canadians consume 62 per cent of their calories from processed ready-to-eat and ultraprocessed foods.
I'm not saying you need to swear off ultraprocessed foods altogether. A diet consisting predominantly of whole and minimally processed foods that includes a smattering of convenient ready-to-eat foods isn't harmful. (Minimally processed foods include frozen fruit and vegetables, dried fruit, plain yogurt, dried and fresh pasta, packaged parboiled rice and frozen meat; processing is used to extend shelf life.)
But moderate consumption is unlikely: Ultraprocessed foods are pervasive, readily available and heavily marketed, and often sold in large, super-sized portions.
Take inventory of your usual diet. Make a list of the ultraprocessed foods you eat on a regular basis. Then, put strategies in place to buy them less often.
Cut it out!
Use the following tips to gradually remove ultraprocessed foods from your diet and, in the process, increase your intake of nutrient-rich whole and minimally processed foods.
Plan in advance: Make a meal plan for the week to avoid the temptation of highly processed prepared foods. Take snacks with you to prevent hitting the vending machine or coffee shop. Stock your fridge, freezer and pantry with staples that are easy to turn into a quick meal, such as canned tuna and salmon, canned beans and lentils, eggs, cottage cheese, frozen edamame and frozen vegetables.
Batch cook: Reserve time on the weekend to cook for weeknights. Granola, soup, pasta sauce, muffins, cookies and energy bars are good examples. Roast a fresh turkey breast for salads and sandwiches. Or prepare a lasagna and freeze it for later use.
Read ingredient lists: When buying packaged foods, as often as possible choose ones with ingredients you'd find in your own pantry. For example, you won't find these ingredients in a recipe book: palm oil shortening, high fructose corn syrup, soy lecithin, modified milk ingredients, disodium guanylate, caramel colour and artificial flavours.
Good chips vs. bad chips: Replace highly processed snacks such as Pringles, Doritos and Cheetos with basic kettle chips (potatoes, vegetable oil, salt), blue corn chips (blue corn, vegetable oil, salt), root vegetable chips or bean chips. Even better, snack on a handful of nuts, popcorn (not the microwaveable kind) or homemade kale chips.
Just ditch it: Stop drinking sugar-sweetened and diet soft drinks. That includes pop, iced tea, lemonade, energy drinks and fruit drinks. Sports drinks should be consumed only during longer bouts of exercise.