Ask the Doctors: Junk food is engineered to taste good, not satisfy

Ultra-processed foods are formulated with a blend of sweet, salty and fatty flavors that keep us reaching for more and also prevent us from feeling completely satisfied.

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A plate of ultra-processed foods — junk food. These types of foods are formulated to tease our palates with a blend of sweet, salty and fatty flavors that keep us reaching for more and also prevent us from feeling completely satisfied. 

Ultra-processed foods are formulated to tease our palates with a blend of sweet, salty and fatty flavors that keep us reaching for more and also prevent us from feeling completely satisfied.

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Dear Doctors: What makes something “junk food?” My diet has been less than stellar during the pandemic. Not only did I gain weight, but I just got the news I have prediabetes. Specifics about how those kinds of food are bad for your health would help a lot.

Dear Reader: Fast food or junk food often refers to ultra-processed foods that have been so radically changed from their original state that they neither look nor taste like the ingredients from which they are made.

This is achieved through how these foods are treated in the cooking and manufacturing process and also by adding ingredients not present in the original food, such as salt, fats, sugars, colors, preservatives and stabilizers.

Ultra-processed foods are formulated to tease our palates with a blend of sweet, salty and fatty flavors that keep us reaching for more and also prevent us from feeling completely satisfied.

This is a remarkable feat. But there’s a potentially steep cost.

Ultra-processed foods are high in sodium, saturated fats and added sugars, which contribute to health problems that include an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, lowered immune response, certain cancers, dementia and early death.

A diet high in these foods often leads to weight gain and obesity. A clinical trial published in the journal Cell Metabolism found that people eating a diet high in ultra-processed foods routinely took in 500 more calories a day than those assigned a diet of whole foods.

Also, these foods are lacking in the wide range of nutrients needed to keep our bodies functioning well, such as being low in the dietary fiber that helps keep the beneficial microorganisms of the gut microbiome fed and happy.

A diagnosis of prediabetes — blood sugar that is higher than normal —is a wakeup call. It means you don’t have Type 2 diabetes yet, but, without lifestyle changes, you are at increased risk.

Dr. Eve Glazier and Dr. Elizabeth Ko are internists at UCLA Health.

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