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Ultra-Processed Foods and Gut Health

Ultra-processed foods are foods that have been heavily altered from their natural state through a series of industrial processes.

But isn’t chopping and canning also processing?

Food processing generally refers to any action that alters food from its natural state, such as drying, freezing, milling, canning, or adding salt, sugar, fat, or other additives for flavour or preservation.

Ultra-processed foods are not simply foods that have been modified by processing, but rather edible products formulated from food-derived substances, along with additives that heighten their appeal and durability.

Ultra-processed foods are heavily industrially processed products that have undergone multiple alterations, often involving a combination of techniques such as hydrogenation, extrusion, and fortification. As a result, these foods are often high in unhealthy fats, added sugar, and salt, and they are low in fibre and nutrients.

What is the impact of eating ultra-processed foods on our health?

Ultra-processed foods make up a significant portion of the modern diet, and they have been linked to a number of health problems, including obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.

Last month, our blog outlined how ultra-processed foods can have a negative impact on pregnancy health.

There is growing evidence that ultra-processed foods can also have a negative impact on gut health. The gut microbiome is a community of trillions of bacteria that live in the intestines. The microbiome plays an important role in digestion, inflammation, immune function, and overall health.

What do ultra-processed foods do to our gut bacteria?

A healthy gut microbiome is diverse and contains a balance of beneficial and harmful bacteria.

Ultra-processed foods can disrupt the gut microbiome in a number of ways.

These foods are often low in fibre, a nutrient that is essential for the growth of beneficial bacteria. Fibre FEEDS the gut bacteria which, in turn, produce SCFAs or ‘short chain fatty acids’. These SCFAs send chemical messages around the body to modulate our immune system, digestion, inflammatory processes and even how much energy we extract (and store) from the food we eat.

Ultra-processed foods also contain a variety of additives, such as emulsifiers and preservatives, which can have harmful effects on the microbiome and change these healthy bacteria.

Studies have shown that people who consume a diet high in ultra-processed foods have a less diverse gut microbiome than those who consume a more traditional diet.

This can lead to a number of health problems, including:

  • Increased risk of obesity: A less diverse gut microbiome is associated with an increased risk of obesity. This is because the microbiome plays a role in regulating appetite and metabolism.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): IBD is a group of chronic inflammatory diseases of the digestive tract. People with IBD have a less diverse gut microbiome than those who do not have the disease.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): IBS is a common condition characterised by abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhoea. People with IBS have changes in the gut microbiome, which can influence intestinal inflammation and pain.
  • Type 2 diabetes: Type 2 diabetes is a chronic condition that affects the body’s ability to regulate blood glucose levels and blood fats. People with type 2 diabetes often have a less diverse gut microbiome than those who do not have the disease.

 How to Improve Gut Health

There are a number of things you can do to improve your gut health and reduce your consumption of ultra-processed foods:

  • Enjoy a diet that is high in fibre. Fibre is a nutrient that is essential for the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Good sources of fibre include fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Limit your intake of ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods are often low in fibre and nutrients, and they are high in unhealthy fats, added sugar, and salt. Minimise eating food from crinkly packets!
  • Eat fermented foods. Fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir, and kimchi, contain live bacteria that can help to improve gut health.
  • Manage stress. Stress can have a negative impact on gut health. Find healthy ways to manage stress, such as exercise, yoga, or meditation.

Do you need help in making changes to your dietary routines?

Our specialist maternal health dietitians are able to tailor a program to support you to adapt guideline recommendations to your lifestyle and preferences. If you need support, please make an appointment to help you achieve your goals.


IMAGE CREDIT: Jamie Street/ Unsplash

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Strawberries, blackberries and blueberries in a white, heart shaped, ceramic dish