I scan all sorts of medical information sources to write these Health Tips. The usual ones that every doctor should be reading (JAMA, Medscape, etc.), but I don’t miss the New York Times and the Washington Post. I often find something I might have missed elsewhere.
This article from the Times startled me, but it did not surprise me. In this study, researchers in the U.S. tracked the diet diaries of 10,000 patients and found that when 60% or more of the caloric intake came from ultra-processed foods (UPFs), those individuals were more than likely to also have chronic problems with anxiety and depression.
The article went on to mention how two years earlier, researchers in Brazil followed 11,000 diet diaries and reported that high amounts of UPFs eaten over years were associated with “global cognitive decline”, which included delayed word recall, poor executive function, and poor word recognition. While they acknowledged “normal” age-related changes in brain function, a lifetime chowing down UPFs presses the ‘fast-forward’ button on brain decline.
Let’s pause here and define our terms. What constitutes an ultra-processed food? From the Brazilian researcher herself:
“Ultra-processed foods include ingredients that are rarely used in homemade recipes — such as high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, protein isolates and chemical additives, like colors, artificial
flavors, sweeteners, emulsifiers, and preservatives,” said Eurídice Martínez Steele, a researcher in food processing at University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
In other words, to spot UPFs you must: (1) read every label and if you can’t easily pronounce a word, then you’ve likely spotted a UPF, (2) as you’re reading, if you see an ingredient that you don’t use in your kitchen, it’s a UPF.
Unless this is your kitchen: “Honey, your meatloaf is a little short on the hydrogenates and Red Dye #3.”; “Mom, the gravy is too thin. Pass the carboxymethylcellulose, please.”
Cheerless fact #1: 60% of the foods eaten in the U.S. are ultra-processed, even the ones we think might be healthy. In almond milk, for instance, sunflower lecithin and gellan gum are used as thickeners. These are considered “safe” by the FDA, but still, I’ll bet neither is in your pantry. On the rare occasion that I thicken a gravy, I reach for corn starch, labeled “100% Corn Starch”.
Cheerless fact #2: It’s been known for years that a diet high in UPFs increases your risk for developing all chronic illnesses (obesity, heart/kidney disease, cancer, autoimmune disorders) and now mental illnesses (anxiety/depression/cognitive decline).
Cheerless fact #3: There is virtually no government control over additives which are classified as “GRAS” (Generally Recognized As Safe) even though many of them are actually banned in many countries around the world. Here’s a list of banned food additives.
Cheerless fact #4: In the same way the tobacco industry manipulated nicotine to make it more addictive, the food industry manipulates UPFs to keep making you want “more” (taste, mouth-feel, another cookie even after you’re full).
Cheerless fact #5 (last one, I promise): For those seeking the “root cause” of things, wondering just why UPFs are dangerous, the answer appears to be twofold. First, they increase levels of inflammation throughout your body (not a good thing) and second, they alter your gut microbiome.
On a positive spin, here is a quiz about how to spot unprocessed foods. It will only take five minutes, and I guarantee some surprises.
And finally, for those interested in functional medicine, you can be tested for everything I’ve discussed in this Health Tip. Vibrant Wellness has a blood test measuring antibodies to 57 common additives, colors, preservatives. Health Lab, a division of Northwestern, can check your body’s level of inflammation. Several labs can now map out your gut’s microbiome.
For any of these, or simply help with your eating habits, schedule with your WholeHealth Chicago practitioner.
David Edelberg, MD
4 thoughts on “This Health Tip Might Make You Anxious: Keep Reading”
Yikes 7.67 / 10, so some news to me here, and I’m usually good at this. Dr. E., is there a plant-based milk brand you’d recommend? My almond milk and coconut milk are both a little iffy.
There were several recommendations made for you from the WHC provider group. Malk and Elmhurst almond milk were top contenders. Oak malk has less ingredients than some of the other plant based milks on the market but can spike blood sugar. Our nutritionist recommended Good Karma flax milk plus protein as a nice option. The Ripple unsweetened milk, made from pea protein, and Califa Farms for almond or coconut milk was also mentioned as a decent brand.
1. Ick! 2. Yikes! 3. Thank you!