Americans at 'Higher Risk' of Chronic Diseases After Ultra-Processed Diet Shift

The diet of the average U.S. resident has shifted more and more towards processed foods, according to a new study.

Such foods are associated with higher risk of several chronic diseases, and a scientist involved with the research thinks the increased intake of ultra-processed foods may be driving obesity.

Processed food refers to any food that has been changed from its natural state, such as by adding salt, sugar, or other substances.

Some foods are more processed than others and thus fall into the ultra-processed category. These might contain things like artificial colors or flavorings and examples include frozen meals, fast foods and soft drinks, according to Harvard Medical School.

Research has found that highly processed foods are linked with obesity and heart disease. One 2019 study, for example, compared the effects of an ultra-processed diet to an unprocessed one in 20 overweight who stayed at a medical facility.

The two-week study found that participants who were fed the ultra-processed diet consumed around 500 calories more per day than the unprocessed one, and that they gained on average two pounds during the ultra-processed phase while those on the unprocessed diet lost two pounds.

Now, a new peer-reviewed study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has found ultra-processed foods seem to be on the increase.

In it, researchers looked at data from nearly 41,000 adults who participated in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 2001 and 2018.

People were asked what they had eaten over the past day and food was sorted into minimally processed foods like vegetables and grains; processed ingredients like oil and salt; processed foods like canned fish and cheese; and ultra-processed foods like frozen pizza and soda.

They found that ultra-processed food consumption grew from 53.5 percent of calories in 2001 to 57 percent by the end of the study around 2018, according to a New York University press release via EurekAlert! outlining the research.

They also found that consumption of whole foods decreased from 32.7 percent to 27.4 percent of calories, mostly due to people eating less meat and dairy.

Ultra-processed food consumption increased across nearly all groups regardless of income except with Hispanic adults, who ate less ultra-processed foods and more whole foods compared with non-Hispanic white and Black adults.

The researchers recommended new policies such as marketing restrictions and increased ultra-processed food taxes to reduce ultra-processed food consumption, while supporting policies to make whole foods more accessible.

Filippa Juul, an assistant professor at the New York University School of Public Health and study lead, said in a press release statement that increased ultra-processed food consumption "may be a key driver of the obesity epidemic."

Juul added: "The overall composition of the average U.S. diet has shifted towards a more processed diet. This is concerning, as eating more ultra-processed foods is associated with poor diet quality and higher risk of several chronic diseases."

"Nutritional science tends to focus on the nutrient content of foods and has historically ignored the health implications of industrial food processing."

The new study comes as federal regulators are putting pressure on food companies to cut the amount of sodium in products like cereal and chips.

Shopping trolley
A stock photo shows someone pushing a trolley down a supermarket aisle. Ultra-processed foods have been linked to worse health than whole foods. Minerva Studio/Getty