Does Consuming Ultra-Processed Food Increase Your Risk Of Obesity, Diabetes And Cancer?

Sunway Medical Centre advocates for healthier food choices on World Health Day.

KUALA LUMPUR, April 6 – According to the World Health Organization, 70 per cent of deaths worldwide are due to non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

These include cardiovascular diseases, cancer, respiratory diseases, and diabetes; which are caused mainly by unhealthy diets and lifestyles. For this year’s World Health Day, Sunway Medical Centre wants to advocate for a #HealthierTomorrow by helping people learn to make better food choices. 

“On a day-to-day basis, we want convenience, time-saving methods of preparing food, and in comes the role of ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods usually contain ingredients that people would not add when cooking homemade food such as colourings, preservatives, sweeteners, stabilisers and emulsifiers. Ultra-processed foods can be cheap, convenient and tasty.” said Dr Teoh Wei Leng, consultant endocrinologist at Sunway Medical Centre.  

Due to its palatable taste and cost-saving nature, most people consume these foods without paying much attention to the poor health consequences they are faced with afterwards. 

Types Of Processed Foods And Potential Health Risks

There are generally four types of food groups, based on how they are processed. 

Process methodsExample of foods
Unprocessed or minimally processedFruit, seeds, stems, roots, leaves, eggs, meat, milk, offal, mushrooms, algae and grains
Processed culinary ingredientsSugar, salt, butter, lard, oils, vinegar
Processed foodsFermented food, tinned fruit and vegetables, salted nuts, meat, bacon, processed cheese and unpackaged freshly made breads
Ultra-processed foods & beveragesIce cream, sausages, crisps, mass-produced bread, breakfast cereals, carbonated drinks, fruit flavoured yogurt/ drinks, instant soups and some alcoholic drinks eg. whisky, gin and rum.

Processed foods are essentially made by adding sugar, oil, salt or other substances.

Ultra-processed foods, on the other hand, are foods that contain many added ingredients like saturated fats, added sugar and salt, flavouring, preservatives, thickening or stabilising agents, etc.

Food processing in ultra-processed foods may also involve high temperature heating that can possibly affect the structure of the food itself.

“Each processed food group has its own purpose and not all processed foods are unhealthy. As long as the nutritional value in the food doesn’t change, it is okay to be consumed. However, ultra-processed food in general contains higher sugar, salt and processed fat, which in some cases can spike insulin levels and make people eat more, resulting in over-consumption.” said Celeste Lau, senior manager of dietetics at Sunway Medical Centre. 

Dr Teoh said that a moderate consumption of ultra-processed foods and beverages on a regular basis can lead to obesity. Obesity in turn can lead to the development of metabolic syndrome like abdominal obesity, diabetes, hypertension, high triglycerides level, and low HDL cholesterol level. These are known health conditions that can lead to an increased risk of heart disease and strokes.

“This observation has been confirmed in multiple studies, which has shown that people who consumed a higher proportion of ultra-processed foods have higher obesity rates, poorer nutritional quality in their diet, higher intake of sodium and sugar, lower intakes of fibres, wholegrains, fruits, and vegetables. This then leads to a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.” Dr Teoh explained. 

A guidebook introduced by Sunway Healthcare Group called Know Diabetes also recommends that including more fibre-rich fruits and vegetables and limiting added sugar in one’s diet can assist in managing the disease. 

Obesity, Diabetes And Increased Risk Of Heart Diseases

Dr Patrick Tiau, consultant cardiologist at Sunway Medical Centre shared that overweight and obese patients have been associated with other risks of cardiovascular disease that can accelerate the process of fat, cholesterol and other substances build-up in our artery walls. 

“When it comes to diabetes, diabetic people are more prone to develop cardiovascular disease than others because diabetes mellitus, or high blood sugar, can block and damage the vessels carrying blood to your heart, starving the heart from oxygen and blood supply,” says Dr Tiau.

“When your heart is unable to pump blood effectively, it can lead to fatigue, difficulty in breathing, and leg swelling. Heart failure tends to get worse over time, but early diagnosis and treatment can improve symptoms and delay the disease progression. Since patients with diabetes are at risk of heart failure, thus prevention of heart failure has become an important therapeutic goal in the management of diabetes.”   

Dr Tiau recommends that people who are overweight or obese exercise regularly and eat a healthy, balanced diet. It also helps if they are able to consult their doctors about creating a diet and exercise plan that works best for them based on their current health status.

Are Ultra-Processed Foods And Beverages Linked To Colorectal Cancer?

Several large-scale studies have recently found that a 10 per cent increment in the consumption of ultra-processed foods and drinks were associated with an over 10 per cent increase in the risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Foods with high fibre content such as fruits and vegetables offer protection against colorectal cancer, while a low intake of these nutrients, accompanied by the presence of additives and other substances with carcinogenic potential in ultra-processed foods are usually of lower nutritional quality.

Some of these harmful substances are sometimes present in the packaging itself if they were in direct contact with food during production, processing, and storage.  

Dr Aqilah Othman, clinical oncologist at Sunway Medical Centre elaborated: “While ultra-processed food and drinks are not classified as carcinogenic in general. they contain specific components that may be dangerous. For example, processed meats have been classified as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).”

“When consumed, the nitrites can be converted into cancer-causing chemicals e.g., N-nitroso compounds or NOCs. Carrageenan and carboxymethylcellulose (CMC), commonly used thickening agents have been associated with intestinal inflammation which as a result can increase the risk of colorectal cancer.” 

Healthy Food Swaps You Can Make For Your Family

Lifestyle habits are best ingrained during the developmental years, according to Dr Aqilah, and parents are the best role models in their family. 

“Children emulate those closest to them and they develop conscious decisions and lifelong habits through observation and activities in daily lives. Thus, parents themselves need to be proactive in reducing their risks of cancers like colorectal cancer for example by not smoking, eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, reducing alcohol and red meat intake, maintaining a healthy weight, participating in regular exercise and attending bowel cancer screening when it is due,” she said.

“These can be done as a family unit, involving their children in the process of food selection during grocery shopping, food preparation for family meals and scheduling time for fun, enjoyable physical activities.”

By ensuring there are healthier food options available at home, parents and individuals can ensure they are able to make better food choices for themselves and their families.

For example, swap biscuits for freshly baked bread and cheese, sweetened orange juice for the fruit itself, and instant foods for home-cooked meals that have been cooked in large batches and frozen for busy days. 

This World Health Day, prioritise your health by doing regular health screenings. Screenings can provide you with the peace of mind you need to keep your health in check.

For individuals who want to assess their health risks, they can also do a simple check for symptoms online at Sunway Medical Centre’s symptom checker.  

Smart Food Swaps For A Healthier You

Planning for a healthier meal and don’t know what kinds of ultra-processed foods you can swap out? Check out the list below for some healthier options:

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