The dangers of excess sugar consumption have been well-established and were officially recognized in the 2015-2020 U.S. dietary guidelines,1 which recommend limiting added sugars to a maximum of 10 percent of your daily calories.2 Make no mistake, however, that this goal is nearly impossible to achieve on a processed food diet.
A fast-food meal consisting of a burger, fries and soda can easily add up to an entire day's worth of required calories, while leaving your body starving for vitamins, minerals, live enzymes, micronutrients and healthy fats. This kind of diet, consumed daily for months and years on end will inevitably prevent you from maintaining good health.
In fact, research suggests refined high-carb diets are as risky as smoking, increasing your risk for lung cancer by as much as 49 percent.3 Researchers have also predicted obesity will overtake smoking as a leading cause of cancer deaths.4 Unfortunately, Americans not only eat a preponderance of processed food, but 60 percent of it is ultra-processed5,6 — products at the far end of the “significantly altered” spectrum.
Definition of Ultra-Processed Food
Examples of ultra-processed foods include breakfast cereals, pizza, chicken nuggets, soda, chips and other salty/sweet/savory snacks, packaged baked goods, microwaveable frozen meals, instant soups and sauces and much more. More generally, ultra-processed foods can be defined as food products containing one or more of the following:
• Ingredients that are not traditionally used in cooking
• Unnaturally high amounts of sugar, salt, processed industrial oils and unhealthy fats
• Artificial flavors, colors, chemical sweeteners and other additives that imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods (examples include additives that create textures and pleasing mouth-feel)
• Preservatives and chemicals that impart an unnaturally long shelf-life
Not only is sugar a highly addictive substance (surpassing that of cocaine, according to some studies), but other ingredients are also highly addictive, especially salt and fat. In fact, the processed food industry has developed “craveabilty” into an art form. Nothing is left to chance, and by making their foods addictive, manufacturers ensure repeat sales.
Ultra-Processed Foods Linked to Cancer
A number of studies have highlighted the risks of processed high-sugar diets, showing excessive sugar consumption is at the very core of many of our current disease epidemics as it drives obesity and insulin resistance. Most recently, French researchers warn that ultra-processed foods raise your risk of cancer, and the more ultra-processed foods you eat, the greater your risk.7,8,9,10
Nearly 105,000 study participants, a majority of whom were middle-aged women, were followed for an average of five years. On average, 18 percent of their diet was ultra-processed, and the results showed that each 10 percent increase in ultra-processed food raised the cancer rate by 12 percent, which worked out to nine additional cancer cases per 10,000 people per year.
The risk of breast cancer specifically went up by 11 percent for every 10 percent increase in ultra-processed food. Sugary drinks, fatty foods and sauces were most strongly associated with cancer in general, while sugary foods had the strongest correlation to breast cancer. According to the authors, “These results suggest that the rapidly increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods may drive an increasing burden of cancer in the next decades."
Co-author Mathilde Touvier told CNN Health,11 “It was quite surprising, the strength of the results. They were really strongly associated, and we did many sensitive analys[e]s and adjusted the findings for many co-factors, and still, the results here were quite concerning.” Confounding factors may also be at play, though, as those who ate a lot of ultra-processed foods were also more likely to smoke and use oral contraceptives, exercise less and eat more calories overall.