How ultra-processed foods make you overweight, depressed and sick

How ultra-processed foods make you overweight, depressed and sick

Updated: Jun 04, 2024Veronika Larisova

What’s the buzz about ultra-processed foods being banned in some countries recently? Why is it not safe to eat such foods every day? Are we being dramatic, or is there science backing these concerns?

To save you the work, we researched and summarised the three main health impacts of ultra-processed foods on human health.


What are Ultra Processed Foods (UPFs)?

According to Harvard, unprocessed or minimally processed foods are whole foods in which the vitamins and nutrients are still intact. The food is in its natural, or nearly natural, state. These foods may be minimally altered by removal of inedible parts, drying, crushing, roasting, boiling, freezing, or pasteurisation, to make them suitable to store and safe to consume. Our range of healthy snacks are in this minimally processed category.

Some foods though are highly processed or "ultra-processed". They most likely have many added ingredients such as preservatives, and are made mostly from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats. They may also contain additives like artificial colours, flavours, thickeners, fillers or stabilisers

Why do Ultra Processed Foods make you gain weight?

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) contain a lot of calories in a very small amount. They don’t fill you up and leave you craving more.


This is because UPFs are usually high in sugar, refined carbs, or artificial sweeteners

This makes you crave more sugar due to the sweet taste and strong insulin response. Even savoury UPFs contain sugar.

Although high in calories, UPFs are low in micronutrients. Eating this way leaves your body starved of essential vitamins and minerals crucial for optimal metabolic function and health, a condition called ‘hidden hunger’ or ‘hidden starvation.’ This results in being overfed but under nourished, inflamed, and craving more food as the body desperately seeks nutrients.

UPFs don’t send satiety signals to your brain, so you can keep eating them without feeling full. For example, 150g of eye fillet cooked in beef tallow is about 400 kcal. One packet of Pringles chips is 650 kcal. While eating a steak cooked in fat will send satiety signals to your brain (especially if you add veggies), eating one packet of chips will leave you craving more. Just for the record, 650 kcal equals about nine boiled eggs! Your brain would stop you from eating that many eggs by making you feel full and satiated after a few.


Mental health issues of Ultra Processed Foods

Consumption of UPFs is associated with increased depressive and anxiety symptoms, while whole foods diets are linked to a reduction in depression and anxiety. This is because the compounds in UPFs affect various parts of our physiology.

Artificial sweeteners and MSG found in ultra-processed foods can disrupt the synthesis and release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. This disruption is linked to mood disorders, including depression and anxiety. Additionally, these components can affect the HPA axis, a critical part of the body's stress response system, further influencing mood.

Emulsifiers such as carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80, used in ultra-processed foods, can alter the composition and function of gut microbiota. This reduction in microbial diversity can trigger inflammatory responses, which are associated with mental health disorders.

Titanium dioxide nanoparticles used as food colourants can increase inflammatory cytokines like interleukin-6, leading to neuroinflammation. Inflammation is a significant factor in the prevalence and treatment of mental disorders, and these nanoparticles may also damage neurons involved in dopamine production, crucial for mood regulation.

Bisphenol A (BPA) in plastic food containers, herbicides, pesticides, and seed oils, can disrupt endocrine and stress-sensitive systems, leading to anxiety and depressive states, especially with perinatal exposure. This disruption impacts the body's hormonal balance, contributing to mental health issues.

Ultra-processed foods are typically high in energy density and designed to promote overconsumption, leading to higher body mass index. This increased adiposity is associated with depression and anxiety. Additionally, these foods can disrupt gut-brain signalling, affecting mood and mental health.

Side note: many behavioural issues in kids can be linked back to ultra processed foods.


Chronic inflammation from Ultra Processed Foods

Chronic inflammation is a prolonged and persistent inflammatory response that can last months or years, often due to factors like persistent infections, autoimmune disorders, or long-term irritant exposure. It is a harmful condition because it can damage tissue and contribute to various chronic diseases. Inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and some mental health issues are all linked to inflammation as a cause or a contributing factor.

Ultra-processed foods are linked to chronic inflammation due to their high content of artificial additives, vegetable fats, refined sugars, and low fibre. These components can disrupt gut microbiota, promote oxidative stress, and trigger inflammatory pathways, thereby increasing the risk of inflammation-related health issues.

Don’t get fooled by the ‘health halo’ tactics used to draw your attention to one virtuous aspect of a food to make it appear better for you than it actually is. One of the best examples is most protein bars pretending to be healthy while being composed of industrially manufactured compounds that harm your gut. Some countries started to ban these synthetic foods due to their harmful effects on human health and the environment.

At Chief, we pride ourselves on not using harmful additives. Our snacks and supplements are made from the highest-quality whole foods with no added seed oils, artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, emulsifiers, or other nasty ingredients.



    Veronika Larisova
    Co-founder, Nutritionist, Exercise Physiologist
    Follow Veronika on Instagram






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