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Why is ultra-processed food harmful to humans?

Having been exposed to the philosophy of macrobiotics in my 20s, I gained some understanding of the impact that correct diet has on our bodies – physically, mentally and spiritually. This has guided my approach to eating for almost three decades.

 

The macrobiotic approach is based on the principles of yin and yang, biological evolution and the order of the universe. I won’t go into those concepts here except to say that for millennia humans have adapted to the environment and adjusted their eating habits along the way to survive and thrive. The macrobiotic approach understands the inherent wisdom in this evolutionary process (and the wisdom that lies within our own bodies) and takes into account the teachings, customs and traditions our ancestors have imparted.

 

Ultimately, the process of gathering food, preparing, processing, eating and expressing gratitude for it, in large part has enabled us to develop into the complex creatures and societies that we are part of today.

 

However, as you well know, at this point in time, even with the major advances in medicine, the majority of humans are far from healthy.

 

There are many contributing factors to this malaise, however, I believe that a major cause of the sickness we face in society is due to the increase in consumption of ultra-processed food (UPF). This issue is covered in great detail, with reams of science backing it up, in Chris van Tulleken’s recent book Ultra-Processed People.

 

So what is UPF and why is it so bad for us?

 

To help answer this question, I believe it all comes back to understanding the connection our bodies have to the planet. Even though we have separated ourselves from the natural world by living in buildings, using air conditioning, and driving cars, humans are still animals inhabiting a complex environment.

 

Just like animals, we thrive on natural food. Food that grows in our environment and food that has harnessed the energy of the sun and that energy is transmuted into our body when we eat it.

 

I know we cannot escape some processing of food. Cooking in and of itself is a way of processing food to make it more digestible, and these methods have evolved alongside us for thousands of years. But ultra-processing is next level.

 

One key element of ultra-processing is taking foods, breaking them down and chemically modifying them. The results of this process include things like the creation of high fructose corn syrup, modified starches, and hydrogenated oils. You may not know what these products are, but check any food label in the supermarket and you’ll see versions of these products listed there. They may in fact be listed as numbers as well.

 

So why do food manufacturers go to all this trouble of ultra-processing anyway?

 

Well, in a nut shell, ultra-processed food is big business. Through the use of chemically modified ingredients, manufacturers reduce the costs associated with more expensive natural ingredients. They create products with a more palatable mouth feel and flavour intensity, as well as increasing shelf life.

 

The outcome of all this is the creation of products that are highly profitable for the multinational corporations that create them. That’s right. These UPFs are designed with the aim to be hyperpalatable (i.e. so tempting that they override your ability to control the amount you eat) and make money for the companies that manufacture them (e.g. Kellogg’s, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Nestlé).

 

It's interesting, isn’t it?

 

It’s not about creating food that is nourishing for your body (although these companies would like you to believe it is). It’s all about generating profit.

 

You and I live in a world where people are time poor. The cost of living is going up. Who can afford, be it time or money, to cook for themselves and their families when UPF is so cheap, accessible, and removes the stress that is associated with meal preparation?

 

It’s not until someone is diagnosed with a medical condition like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, high blood pressure, cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, etc., etc. – that people realise the food they have been eating is what is causing their problems. What is even more unfortunate, is that many don’t even make that realisation, their doctors included.

 

So when it comes down to it, food is very nuanced. Your body, amazingly, can continue to work, even when you eat UPF. However, your body cannot thrive under suboptimal conditions. Every meal is an opportunity to support your body and mind, or cause harm.

 

I want you to understand that a natural way of eating will support your health and wellbeing for a long time. As humans, we’ve been eating this way for millennia. It’s only in the last couple of centuries, and especially in the last 50 years that things have changed so dramatically.

 

By chemically altering and ultra-processing food, we’ve gone beyond what our digestive systems are evolutionarily designed for. It’s like explaining to a cave man what a smart phone does. They’re just not going to get it and our bodies are the same. We are still using an older operating system and it’s just not compatible with the new program, i.e. ultra-processed food.

 

In saying all that, you can get away with small amounts of UPF, but if you’re eating more than 40% UPF as part of your daily diet, you probably don’t feel as great as you could.

 

If this raises any questions for you, please let me know. I’m keen to explore this topic in much more detail and I’d love some juicy questions to answer.


A person holding in one hand a head of broccoli and in the other hand a donut with pink icing and sprinkles

 

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