Let’s face it, Americans have never been famous for their healthy diets and slender physiques. Now a new study out of New York University published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has found that the diet of the average United States citizen is including more ultra-processed foods than ever.
Ultra-processed foods are defined as industrially manufactured, ready-to-eat or heat foods that include additives and are largely devoid of whole foods. These ingredients form an equation that leads to obesity and heart disease.
“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,” said Filippa Juul, an assistant professor and postdoctoral fellow at NYU School of Public Health and the study’s lead author. “The high and increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods in the 21st century may be a key driver of the obesity epidemic.”
The study looked at 41,000 adults who took part in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2001 to 2018. The survey asked the participants about their diet in the previous 24 hours. Despite movements to decrease intakes of processed foods and transition to a diet with more whole foods, the results didn’t appear to show any such trend towards healthiness.
Ultra-processed food consumption grew from 53.5% of calories at the beginning of the period studied (2001-2002) to 57% at the end (2017-2018). The intake of ready-to-eat or heat meals, like frozen dinners, increased the most, while the intake of some sugary foods and drinks declined. In contrast, the consumption of whole foods decreased from 32.7% to 27.4% of calories, mostly due to people eating less meat and dairy.
Processing food changes it from its natural state. Processed foods, for the most part, only have two or three ingredients. They are also essentially made by adding substances such as salt, oil, or sugar. Examples include canned fish or canned vegetables, fruits packaged in syrup, and freshly made bread.
Some foods go a step further in their unhealthiness. These are highly processed or ultra-processed foods. These most likely have many added ingredients such as added sugar, salt, fat, and artificial colors or preservatives, as well as substances extracted from foods, starches, and hydrogenated fats. They may also contain additives like artificial flavors or stabilizers. These are your frozen meals, soft drinks, hot dogs and cold cuts, fast food, packaged cookies, cakes, and salty snacks.
Juul says that one of the best – and maybe only ways – to improve diets is to implement policies to reduce their intake, such as revised dietary guidelines, marketing restrictions, package labeling changes, and taxes on soda. The political landscape being what it is, however, it would be a very curvy and pothole-filled road to implement any of those changes.
“In the current industrial food environment, most of the foods that are marketed to us are in fact industrial formulations that are far removed from whole foods,” said Juul. “Nevertheless, nutritional science tends to focus on the nutrient content of foods and has historically ignored the health implications of industrial food processing.”
The study didn’t see any correlation between income or ethnicity. The one outlier was Hispanic adults, who ate significantly less ultra-processed foods and more whole foods compared with non-Hispanic white and Black adults.
The study took into account diets pre-COVID-19, and Juul says that diets probably only got worse throughout the pandemic.
“In the early days of the pandemic, people changed their purchasing behaviors to shop less frequently, and sales of ultra-processed foods such as boxed macaroni and cheese, canned soups and snack foods increased substantially. People may have also eaten more packaged ‘comfort foods’ as a way of coping with the uncertainty of the pandemic. We look forward to examining dietary changes during this period as data become available.”