Ultra-Processed…Ultra-Problematic (Pt. 2)

I will preface this article by stating that if you haven’t already, you should probably read Pt. 1 before diving in to Pt. 2 (although I covered everything in a superficial sense, there is a lot of helpful info in Pt.1 to serve as a nice foundation).

Anyhow, just as a recap, here are some key points to consider from Pt.1:

  1. Do not have blind faith in food packaging. If there is one thing I want you take away from these articles, it is that you should always read the nutrition labels before buying something. In fact, I do not even look at the calories per serving, but rather the amount/type of ingredients and base my decisions off of these two factors (more on this later in the article and in a later piece).
  2. Fat and carbohydrates are burned reciprocally, so you are either burning one or the other, depending on the COMPOSITION of your nutrient intake.
  3. Americans are accumulating fat mass at an alarming rate, and in fact, even though we may appear healthy on the outside, a recent study has demonstrated that only about 12% of Americans have no signs of insulin resistance (I am going to do a separate piece digging into this study and other similar studies; 1)

So in today’s article, I want to explain some of the mechanisms as to why we are gaining weight so rapidly, and lay out some evidence to demonstrate the catastrophe that is “ultra-processed” food. Of course, throughout the article I will lay out some practical implications that the average American can begin using TODAY to take back control of their health!

If we use the biochemical background we gained from Pt. 1, we come to the realization that one of the reasons we are gaining weight so rapidly is due to the fact that we are eating foods that are both high in carbohydrates and high in fat. Simply put, if we do not engage in high intensity exercise or fast for prolonged periods of time, we are unable to deplete our liver glycogen. If we were just eating a high carbohydrate diet (meaning high carbohydrates, low fat, and moderate-high protein), this really wouldn’t be a problem. We would have high glycogen stores and would continually burn off glucose, but our fat stores would be low since we aren’t consuming a lot of dietary fat, therefore we wouldn’t accumulate excess fat. The same can be said if we adopted a high fat diet (meaning high fat, low carbohydrates, and moderate-high protein). Since we aren’t consuming a lot of dietary carbohydrates, our liver glycogen stores are low so our body will not use glucose as its primary fuel. Instead, we are consuming a lot of dietary fat, but also burning fat for fuel.

In both cases, an individual should not develop insulin resistance and not accumulate excess fat, because they have leveraged their biology to prefer one energy source over the other, by simply increasing the consumption of one energy source over the other (carbohydrate vs fat adaption). The takeaway message here: Keep dietary fats high and dietary carbohydrates low, or keep dietary carbohydrates high and dietary fats low to potentially avoid insulin resistance and excess weight gain.

The only problem…how many Americans are eating in this manner? Instead, we typically end up eating a Standard American Diet (SAD; may also be referred to as a Western Diet). This SAD style of eating has both high carbohydrates and high fat (and we know what tends to happen when we continually eat in this pattern). So maybe if we take a glance at what our ancestors ate, we will get a better picture where we are going wrong.

Depending on who you ask and how far back in history you want to look, you may get a range of answers as to what primal humans ate. Having done my own deep dive into the literature, here is what I found. Researchers tend to gravitate towards the idea that the earliest hominins (comprising those species regarded as human, directly ancestral to humans, or very closely related to humans) ate a diet similar to what modern chimpanzees consume: an omnivorous (both plant and animal) diet consisting of meat, fruit, flowers/leaves, and insects (2–5). In addition, tooth morphology studies indicate the possiblity that these early hominins also may have consumed “harder items” such as seeds, nuts, tubers, and roots (5–9).

The intent of this article is not to debate what our ancestors did or did not eat (that is a debate that I am highly under-qualified for). However, the point I am trying to get across is that in today’s society we have access to the world at our fingertips. I can walk into a grocery store and buy food that will be shelf-stable for years, whereas, if we look back at an individual in the Paleolithic era (say maybe 2.5 million years ago) obviously this would not be the case. Regardless of your stance on ancestral nutrition, one thing is for sure: Whole, un-processed (natural) foods were the staple of our ancestor’s diet.

Now that I have drawn this distinction, I feel as if it is a great time to formally define what I mean by natural, processed, and ultra-processed foods. To do so, I am utilizing the NOVA classification system, which was designed by The Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition, School of Public Health at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil (2). The NOVA classification system is essentially considered the “Gold Standard” for use in nutrition studies across the globe.

The NOVA system has 4 tiers:

1) Unprocessed (natural) or minimally processed. Natural is considered being “obtained directly from plants/animals with no alterations.” Minimally processed is considered “subtracting part of the food, but not adding anything to the food.”

2)Oils, fat, salt, and sugar. “Products extracted from natural foods or from nature by processes such as pressing, grinding, crushing, pulverizing, and refining.”

3) Processed food. “Products manufactured by industry with the use of salt, sugar, oil or other substances (Group 2) added to natural or minimally processed foods (Group 1) to preserve or to make them more palatable. They are derived directly from foods and are recognized as versions of the original foods.”

4) Ultra-processed food. “Industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substances extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugar, starch, and proteins), derived from food constituents (hydrogenated fats and modified starch), or synthesized in laboratories from food substrates or other organic sources (flavor enhancers, colors, and several food additives used to make the product hyper-palatable).

  • All definitions were pulled from Reference #2

To better demonstrate this, I am going to give you an example of the processing of a certain type of food I am sure you are all familiar with: CORN (I am going to skip group 2, since those are just additives).

  1. You start with just plain whole corn (on the cob). Obviously one ingredient is included…corn.
  2. Now we want to process that corn so it can stay on a grocery shelf for endless amounts of time. So I take the Whole corn, throw in a bit of water, sugar, and salt, and store it in a tightly sealed can.

3. Then we get to the ultra-processed version of corn…our good old friend: CORN CHIPS. I chose to look at a flavored version, because let’s be honest…how many people are really going to eat the original version when such enticing flavors like “Chili cheese” exist. And would you look at that…we go from one ingredient whole corn to 24-ingredient Chili-Cheese Frito Corn Chips. Now you tell me…how many of us are going to go to our local grocery store and buy corn on the cob instead of corn chips? Corn chips taste better, last longer, and on a per-serving basis, are cheaper. Do you think our ancestors would have eaten this “FRANKEN-FOOD?”

So clearly we are highly diluting our food with flavor additives and junk to make it taste better and last longer. All these unnatural ingredients are a huge problem (which I will get to shortly), but the real problem is macro-nutrient discrepancies between natural and ultra-processed food.

If we just do a quick macro-nutrient breakdown of 1 large ear of corn (7–3/4" to 9" long) based on USDA data (10), we get a breakdown of:

Compared to one serving of Chili-Cheese Frito chips:

We see that whole-corn is high in carbohydrates (as are most vegetables), relatively low in fat and low-moderate in protein (of course corn is not a great source of protein…more on protein sources later). Whereas, our Franken-chips have an abysmally-low amount of protein and is high in both carbohydrates and fats. If we think back to Pt.1 and the beginning of this article, we know that foods high in both carbohydrates and fats are a serious problem, and that we should try to stick to either a high carb-low fat or low carb-high fat approach, and more importantly…we should try to avoid high carb-high fat like its COVID-19!

And now you are probably thinking to yourself, “Well I understand that our ancestors ate whole natural foods, and that the combo of high-carb and high-fat is bad, but Adam, what should I eat?”

Well it’s about damn time you asked! Again, I am not going to tell you what to eat, but rather, I am going to lay out the evidence and allow you to think for yourself. And trust me, for about 90% of you reading this article, I believe what I am about to share with you will blow your mind.

Probably up until this point in your life, you have never truly considered what macro nutrient ratios we find in whole-food compared to ultra-processed food. So let’s take a look at a few examples:

  1. In 4 oz of 80/20 ground beef (80% fat, 20% protein):

2. OK, how about looking at the breakdown of 1 large egg (about 50 g):

Now, although I am biased towards an animal-product based approach (which I will discuss in later articles) I want to show you something:

3. Let’s look at a medium-sized green apple (182 g):

4. And Let’s do everyone’s favorite…the brown potato (173 g)

So what is the point I am trying to make here? Natural, whole-foods are predominantly comprised of protein and ONE OF THE ENERGY MACRONUTRIENTS…NOT BOTH. Animal products tend to be high-fat and low carb, whereas fruits and vegetables tend to be high-carb and low fat. The common trend: unlike the Ultra-processed foods which are high in both carbs and fats (the Chili Cheese Fritos or the Kind Protein Bar from pt.1), natural, whole-foods tend to be high in one or the other. WOW…MIND BLOWN.

So I don’t care if you eat a meat-based diet or a plant-based diet. If you build your nutritional habits with whole-foods as the foundation and ditch the ultra-processed versions of food (like low-carb bread or those fake-meat burgers…stupid Burger King), you are better off than most.

So now with this knowledge, you have a new tool to put in your toolbox. You know that the combo of high carb and high fat leads to fat accumulation (and if you are not careful, metabolic syndrome). You also know that ultra-processed foods are high in both carbs and fats, so its best to avoid them. However, whole foods tend to be high in one energy macronutrient and low in the other.

So, what happens if you eat predominantly animal products? In this case, your main dietary sources will be fats and protein (remember the eggs and ground beef). This shifts your body into burning fat as its fuel (and if we remember from the beginning of the article, an individual eating in this pattern will most likely avoid weight gain and insulin resistance). And of course, the same can be said if you were to adopt a primarily plant-based approach (think about the apple and potato). In this case you would primarily be consuming carbs and protein and avoiding fat, so your body would shift to primarily burning glucose, and once again if an individual kept this eating pattern up, they would most likely avoid fat gain and insulin resistance.

Easy enough right? The only problem is that the Standard American Diet is chock-ful of ultra-processed Franken-Foods which are high in fat and carbs.

In fact, in 2009–2010 a group of researchers conducted a cross-sectional study aimed to gauge the diet of approximately 9,500 Americans (via 24-hour diet recall). The researchers determined that ultra-processed foods comprised about 60% of the average American’s diet (16).

Why such a high prevalence? These foods are cheap, shelf-stable and highly highly highly addicting! If you don’t want to take my word for it that’s fine (I’ll only cry a little). Instead we can look to the literature to provide some evidence.

A 2019 study aimed to investigate the impact of an ultra-processed vs un-processed diet on calorie intake and weight gain in 20 healthy, overweight adults in a clinical setting. The setup was quite unique: The study was split into two phases lasting 14 days each. Each subject would participate in both phases (this is called a randomized control trial. This type of study is considered the gold-standard in research design). Which phase the participant started with was randomized. During each phase of the trial, subjects were given 3 meals a day and allowed 60 minutes to consume as much or as little as they wanted at each meal (ad libitum feeding). Snacks were also available ad libitum (depending on which phase of the trial the participant was in, the snacks would be either ultra-processed or un-processed). Here’s the kicker: “Meals were designed to be matched for presented calories, energy density, macronutrients, sugar, sodium, and fiber.” In the ultra-processed phase, 83.5% of the calories came from ultra-processed food, and in the un-processed phase, 83.3% of the calories came from un-processed food.

Therefore, researchers were able to examine the effect of ultra-processed vs un-processed food consumption on these 20 subjects. The results might shock you:

On average, subjects ate about 500 more calories a day when they were in the ultra-processed phase compared to when they were in the un-processed phase. When the subjects were in the ultra-processed phase, they tended to increase energy consumption (carbohydrates and fats), but did not increase protein consumption. Therefore, their P:E went down on the ultra-processed diet. Lastly, when participants were on the ultra-processed diet they gained 2 pounds on average. Whereas, when the participants were on the un-processed diet, they lost 2 pounds on average (17).

Of course, with any study, there were some limitations. A small sample size in a clinical setting definitely restricts the ability to generalize the findings. Also, we cannot forget about individual variation. The weight loss/gain data reported was an average across the 20 participants. For instance, it was reported that 11 people gained “extreme weight” on the ultra-processed diet (13 pounds over two weeks), while some participants gained little to no weight (but, of course, everyone really only cares about the average; 17, 18).

Nevertheless, the takeaway message here is that there is something about ultra-processed food that causes individuals to over consume nutrients, leading to weight gain. In short…FOOD QUALITY MATTERS FAR FAR FAR MORE THAN YOU THINK!

There are a myriad of possible explanations, but I think the easiest and most brief idea to explain is the addiction we have to ultra-processed food (I can do a separate piece going much more in-depth on this…It’s part of what I did my Honors Thesis on).

I like to think of appetite as being split into two complimentary pathways: 1) Homeostatic hunger (this encompasses our biological drive to consume both energy and protein/nutrients), and 2) Hedonistic hunger (dictated by our environment rather than our biology, and drives us towards eating for pleasure rather than metabolic maintenance; 19).

The problem is that we often confuse these two types of hunger (or don’t even realize we have two types of hunger). So what happens when we get hungry? Well, we reach for those delicious, hyper-palatable (very pleasant to the taste) Chili-Cheese Fritos and Kind Protein bars that we just picked up from the store for dirt cheap. The crazy thing is that just like stimulant drugs ( for example: cocaine), these hyper-palatable, ultra-processed foods send a signal to our brain (the Ventral Tegmental Area if you are curious) that causes arousal and stimulates our pursuit to seek pleasure (19). Yep, you read that right…hyper-palatable, ultra-processed food is highly highly addicting, akin to drugs of abuse. Scary, huh?

But what about homeostatic hunger? As humans, we need energy to survive. We can’t live off of just protein (You would die of Rabbit Starvation, but that’s a whole separate conversation). So we seek out carbohydrates and fats to satiate this energy hunger. Yet, we also have a need for protein and micro nutrients (think vitamins and minerals). This nutrient hunger is often forgotten, due to our reliance on FRANKEN-FOOD to “meet our needs.”

So we tend to gorge ourselves on carbohydrates and fats (and this is even worse when they are combined), but we forget about protein, vitamins, and minerals. This again could be another reason why we are overeating.

Our body has specific hunger signals that tells us when and what to eat.

Hunger and appetite are highly nuanced, but in simple terms, to feel “full” you have to take care of 1)nutrient hunger, 2) energy hunger, and 3) hedonistic hunger (although we try and limit this one!).

But if you are only eating foods high in either carbs or fats (or both!) you have to eat way way way more to meet your protein and micro nutrient needs. This again is one of the reasons why I gravitate towards animal-based products over plant-based products. Let’s quickly compare a common NATURAL vegan protein source to a common NATURAL animal protein source: Lentils vs 80/20 ground beef. To be fair, I will use a common iPhone App, MyFitness Pal, and I will use a typical serving size of 1 cup (cooked) for each:

1 cup of cooked lentils: 320 calories, 60g carbs, 4g fat, 18g protein

1 cup cooked 80/20 ground beef: 340 calories, 0g carbs, 22g fat, 31g protein.

With almost 2x as much protein in 1 cup of 80/20 ground beef compared to 1 cup of lentils, I will most likely require less calories to achieve satiety. So again, I am looking beyond the calorie composition of each, and more at the nutrient density (protein, vitamins, and minerals).

We all eat to satiety…the amount of calories it takes to get there is predominately determined by FOOD QUALITY.

So how do you utilize this knowledge that food quality may be just as important if not more important than calories? There is a simple solution to this of course: Target protein and micro nutrients first and foremost, then re-evaluate your hunger and meet your energy needs if necessary.

And I have not 1, not 2, but 3 added bonuses for you: First, protein is more satiating than carbohydrates and fats (21). Second, we tend to see micronutrients attached to quality protein sources. For instance, beef is abundant in Vitamin B12, Zinc, Selenium, Iron, Niacin, Vitamin B6, and Phosphorus (22), and here is a micronutrient breakdown of one of my favorite sources of protein: Salmon

Third, both beef and salmon have very high P:E in one serving (Salmon is about a 5, ground beef at 80/20 is about 1.6…these are fantastic especially compared to that Franken-Food). The kicker is that both ground beef and salmon (and other animal-based products) pack a lot of protein and micro nutrients to satiate your nutrient hunger. Animal-based products contain ample amounts of fat to satiate your energy hunger. Finally, animal-based products are extremely energy dense (remember 1 g of fat is 9 calories compared to 1 g of carbs which is 4 calories) which increases palatability thereby satiating your hedonistic hunger (23, 24). BOOM, BOOM, BOOM! Animal products are a triple threat…yet another reason I have gravitated towards them.

Alright, I threw a lot at you, but if you have read this article in its entirety (and Pt.1) I basically just gave you an ultimate cheat code for life (and there are plenty more that I wish to share).

Let’s just quickly review what we covered in this article and the key takeaway points that you can begin using today:

  1. Avoid foods that are high in both carbohydrates and fats. This deadly combo can lead to overeating, and thereby fat accumulation and potentially the onset of metabolic syndrome and Type 2 Diabetes.
  2. Natural foods (Un-processed) are typically only abundant in either fat or carbs, not both. The only exceptions that come to mind are milk and some nuts.
  3. Ultra-processed foods are not only typically low in protein, but they are almost always high in both carbs and fats (very energy dense).
  4. We have two main hunger pathway: Homeostatic (think protein, micro nutrients, and energy) and hedonistic. We as humans cannot survive on protein alone, nor can we survive on just energy alone, so we must satiate both our nutrient and energy hungers. The only problem is that we tend to focus too much on our hedonistic hunger, which leads to over consumption.
  5. Protein is the most satiating macro-nutrient, and it tends to come packed with many micro-nutrients, especially in animal-based products.

So, how can you practically use these tools in your everyday life to leverage your biochemistry and optimize your health:

  1. Read the damn nutrition label. If the majority of the food you are consuming has over 5 ingredients, I highly encourage you to consider a healthier alternative. Quit trying to add damn super foods to your diet, and focus on removing the crap. You do not need to cut down to 1-ingredient whole foods right away. You can try swapping one ultra-processed food with a processed or natural food at each meal and slowly progress.
  2. When you begin a meal, prioritize protein and micro nutrients. Again, these don’t need to be 1-ingredient whole foods, but you will find an abundance of protein and micro nutrients in animal-based products. You will also find an abundance of fiber (which we haven’t really touched on yet) and micro nutrients in Leafy green vegetables. Thus, in my opinion you will get the most bang for your buck if you make animal protein and leafy greens the star of the show at each meal.
  3. I encourage you to attempt to be mindful when you eat. Don’t stare at a TV screen, and try to eat in a slow and controlled manner (this will allow your brain and stomach more time to communicate…and allow you to gauge a better sense of your hunger). If you are still hungry, this most likely is energy hunger (since you just took care of your nutrient hunger). Again, think whole foods here: (if you are craving carbs, try a potato, if you are craving fat, try whole-milk PLAIN greek yogurt).

Alright, so if you made it this far and still are not convinced, I will leave you with a thought experiment (or a real experiment if you are gutsy enough):

The next time you are hungry, I encourage you to attempt to eat 1 lb of 80/20 ground beef. This comes out to be approximately 1,134 calories at 89 grams of fat, 77 grams of protein, a very trace amount of carbs (essentially its 0) and a P:E ratio of about 1.6. Now if you are able to finish this much ground beef (which most of you probably would struggle at doing), I assure you that you will be full for a very long time, and stocked up on a ton of quality nutrients.

Now after you attempt this, allow yourself to get to the same “level of hunger” and try eating 1,100 calories worth of Dunkin Donuts Glazed donuts. Each donut has about 240 calories, so you figure that’s about 4.5 donuts. This has a meager 18 g of protein, 50 g of fat, and about 150 g of carbs for a total P:E of 0.09 (Yay! right on par with our Chili-Cheese Fritos). I am betting that you would not only be able to polish of these donuts, but in about two hours…you would be hungry again!

FOOD QUALITY > CALORIE COUNTING

Dr. Naiman said it best:

PROTEIN AND MICRO NUTRIENTS COMBINED…IMPOSSIBLE TO OVEREAT. CARBS AND FATS COMBINED…IMPOSSIBLE TO NOT OVEREAT

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Post-Baccalaureate research assistant in the Molecular and Clinical Nutrition Lab at the National Institutes of Health