How processed foods are killing us prematurely

Dr Nick Fuller
Leading Obesity Expert at the University of Sydney and founder of Interval Weight Loss.

New research has highlighted the dangers of a poor diet - eating lots of pre-packaged and processed foods, such as pizza, biscuits, confectionaries, processed meats, and pies will lead to an early death. It’s a no brainer – these foods should not be part of our day-to-day eating habits, and they are part of the reason for our soaring obesity rates. Yet, many experts are finding reason to debate over the findings of the study because after all, it was an observational study – not the type of research we want to rely on all the time.

Observational studies - where you follow up groups of people over time - can help spot patterns but it’s true, they don’t give us complete confidence that the direct cause of dying early was due to the consumption of a diet higher in processed foods. It may have been other factors in a person’s lifestyle (for example, activity level) that cannot be accounted for. 

In an ideal world, we would randomise people to two different groups and follow them up over time until they die; one group on a diet largely made up of processed foods and the other group on a diet without them. But this would not be ethical, as this would not be healthy to do so, and therefore observational studies, as in this instance, can provide valuable insight and we must take action based on them. A diet largely made up of processed food will mean you’re consuming too much fat, sugar, and salt. You’ll also be missing out on key nutrients like fibre which prevent disease.

What are they?

Processed foods are those that contain multiple ingredients and are manufactured through a large number of industrial processes. They are ready to heat, eat, and serve in a matter of minutes. In the modern-day environment, these are the foods we are reaching for, and relying on, the majority of the time. They make up 70% of our diet.

Why are they addictive?

There is a reason why we keep going back for the foods we love. When we register a pleasure, dopamine is released into the brain’s pleasure centre called the nucleus accumbens. The hippocampus is then responsible for remembering this sense of satisfaction and the amygdala triggers a response next time we see the food, almost as if our brains have been hijacked.

Food manufacturing has resulted in a significant change in our food preferences. The foods that give us pleasure are no longer nature’s treats, such as papaya, mangoes and berries. Instead, they are processed foods. The added fat, salt and sugars in these processed foods trigger addictive-like eating behaviours, which we see in our modern obsession with so many foods like doughnuts, muffins, pizza and bakery treats.

What can you do?

A lifetime of learned behaviour and poor habits does not change overnight. Our brain structure can change over time and a lifetime of poor food choices may mean you find it harder to change your eating habits and re-wire your brain so that healthy food choices become the default option. 

You can change the architecture of your brain and it does respond to new situations, environments and lifestyles. A major step to adapting to success is making that very first positive choice. Applied repeatedly over time, positive decision-making becomes a wiring – the connectivity between your neurons in your brain - that is worked and strengthened. It might be saying no to that pie or no to those chocolates and lollies that fill your office environment. This first step is most important. Repeatedly applying correct choices will lead to success.

Relying on pre-prepared and processed food all the time will see you writing your will earlier than expected. Stop giving excuses and put your health first. 

About Dr Nick Fuller

Dr Nick Fuller is the founder of Interval Weight Loss and is a leading obesity expert at the University of Sydney with a Ph.D. in Obesity Treatment. Dr Fuller is also the author of three best-selling books and his work been published in top ranked journals in the medical field, including JAMA, Lancet and American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.