“Ultra-processed” foods: the nutrition myth that won’t die

“Ultra-processed” foods: the nutrition myth that won’t die

The philosopher Aristotle taught that moderation was essential to a virtuous life. This is a lesson we all grasp intuitively. A few drinks with your friends on a Friday night is perfectly fine; drinking 12 beers alone on a Tuesday night is alcoholism. I could go on, but you get the idea: avoid extremes and chances are you’ll do just fine in this life.

Unfortunately, many nutrition researchers seem to have ignored undergraduate philosophy because they can’t help but think in the extreme. Consider this recent story from The Conversation: Ultra-processed foods: It’s not just their poor nutritional value that’s of concern:

Many of us know that ultra-processed foods are harmful to our health. But it’s not clear if that’s just because these foods have low nutritional value. Now two new studies have shown that a poor diet may not be enough to explain their health risks. This suggests that other factors may be needed to fully explain their health risks.

It’s not clear who “many of us” are, but I’m not among them and you shouldn’t be either. Foods that people consider “ultra-processed” are perfectly safe to eat and often very nutritious. Claims to the contrary are based more on food snobbery than science.

What is an “ultra-processed” food?

It is an ill-defined synonym for “bad”, widely used by academics and journalists who are not held responsible for their imprecise language. Even a cursory examination of “ultra-processed” foods confirms how unnecessary the term is: pasteurized, vitamin-enriched milk or juice, cereals with added nutrients, canned tuna, and even deli meats are “heavily processed.” even though they obviously aren’t. t harmful when consumed in moderation.

Whole milk, for example, is packed with nutrients that young children need; pediatricians regularly recommend it for children 1 year and older. In contrast, the American Academy of Pediatrics warns parents that “unprocessed” (unpasteurized) raw milk can make children very sick.

A myth based on bad science

It just doesn’t make sense to categorize so many diverse foods and beverages by the amount of processing they go through. What evidence does The Conversation have to challenge this common-sense conclusion? The author cites two studies:

The first study, which involved more than 20,000 [sic] Italian adults found that participants who ate the most ultra-processed foods had an increased risk of dying prematurely from any cause. The second study, which looked at more than 50,000 male healthcare professionals in the United States, found that a high intake of ultra-processed foods was associated with an increased risk of colon cancer.

We don’t have time to go through both articles in detail, but let’s take a quick look at the first one. The dietary data for the study was self-reported by the 20,000 participants, making the numbers irrelevant. People do not accurately report what they eat and how much they eat in these surveys. Epidemiologists know this; some of them have even asked their colleagues to drop this useless study design, but more and more such sighting reports are making headlines every week. Specifically, the questionnaire used in this article:

…was not originally developed to assess the degree of food processing, so many foods were not included (eg ready meals, energy bars, slimming products).

This means that participants could not accurately report “cooking methods, ingredients, place of eating and brand names of packaged foods”. In other words, the authors couldn’t even examine the variables that would allow them to assess the health impacts of consuming processed foods. The question then arises, why did the researchers use a tool that was unsuitable for the study they conducted? Beat me. Whatever the answer, the data in this article is unreliable.

Back to conversation:

Numerous studies have shown that a poor diet can increase inflammation in the body and this is linked to a higher risk of chronic disease. Given that signs of inflammation were seen in Italian study participants who ate the most ultra-processed foods, this could suggest that inflammation may help explain why ultra-processed foods increase risk. of illness.

It is true to some extent. Eating too much can lead to weight gain and inflammation, increasing your risk of various nasty diseases. See Dr. Chuck Dinerstein’s excellent article titled Explaining Fat for more. But consuming too much “raw” or “unprocessed” sugar will make you obese and diabetic just as easily as drinking too many sodas. Again, the treatment is not the issue. “There is no direct linear relationship between processing and the nutritional value of foods,” Dr. Dinerstein has explained elsewhere.

Food snobbery everywhere

I find today’s victim culture boring. Although if there’s one attitude that everyone should find offensive, it’s the kind of food snobbery regularly exhibited by nutrition experts and Conversation contributors:

Simply reducing your intake of ultra-processed foods can be a challenge. Ultra-processed foods are designed to be super-appetizing – and with persuasive marketing, that can make resisting them a huge challenge for some people.

See, stupid rube, you’re not a rational adult capable of making sound decisions. You’re a victim, and an idiot at that, whose self-control has been thwarted by Doritos’ intense flavor profile. Color me skeptical.

The evidence does not support the Conversation’s rhetoric here. When you give obese patients medication to curb their interest in “super appetizing” foods, it works, but they don’t lose weight. Studies have also repeatedly shown that simple behavioral changes (weighing your food, planning your meals, etc.) help people lose weight and keep it off. Many Americans have done so despite easy access to delicious, inexpensive calories around every corner.

It’s a long way of saying, the “ultra-processed” meme must die. It’s a patronizing and simplistic response to a complex public health issue. The sooner we give it up, the better.

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