The process by which your cereals, salads and meats reach your table has dramatically altered the overall nutrition in most people’s diets. The addition of vegetable oil and the growing popularity of fast-food restaurants have also contributed. When this same diet was fed to pigs as discussed in this short video, researchers stopped the study because it was deemed cruel to the animals.1
Survey data published in 2016 showed the average person got 57.9% of their energy from ultraprocessed foods and 89.7% from added sugars.2 A rigorous study published in the journal Cell Metabolism demonstrated the deleterious effect that ultraprocessed diets have on excess calorie intake, weight gain and the resulting obesity epidemic.3
According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in 2009-2010, more than 35.7% of adults were considered overweight,4 a number that had grown to 42.4% by 2018.5 While the effect a Western diet has on weight gain has been well-documented, when the same diet is fed to growing pigs, researchers found the results were disastrous.
Study Feeding Pigs Processed Foods Stopped When They Got Sick
Eric Berg, Ph.D., is an expert meat scientist at North Dakota State University who believes that pigs can substitute for humans when analyzing nutritive values of dietary intake. “Like humans, pigs are omnivores and their anatomy and physiology are very similar, Berg explains.”6
Since their gastrointestinal system and nutrient requirements are comparable to humans’, pigs are used to test human nutritional needs. In Berg’s experiments, he’s already learned that pigs do poorly on a diet that lacks protein with a good balance of amino acids in it.
“We’ve known for 100 years that it is not just protein that’s important, but the amino acids that make up the protein,” Berg says. “Corn can be high in protein, but it is low in availability of essential amino acids. We would never just feed corn to pigs, but balance their diet with a legume like soybeans to balance essential amino acids and then add vitamins and minerals.”
Berg has also found that when pigs are fed a typical Western diet, their growth is stunted, and they develop intramuscular fat as compared to pigs fed a typical porcine diet. Berg spoke with a reporter from Tristate Livestock News, noting that, while we seem to know a lot about animal nutrition we are way behind when it comes to adhering what’s best for us:7
“We would never just feed corn to pigs,” Berg said, “but balance their diet with a legume like soybeans to balance essential amino acids and then add vitamins and minerals … [Yet] we snack ourselves into non-nutrition. We may have a whole-grain bagel for breakfast and then snack on something else for lunch. As a result, our diet is out of balance.”
As noted by Tri-State Livestock News, Berg is recognized for his work in meat research, and has testified at hearings on the USDA Dietary Guidelines at the National Institutes of Health. During his interview in the video above, he shares his belief that using pigs as models can help reduce the error in the nutritional analysis, which can happen in human studies.
He discusses one study where they formulated the pig diet based on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of the common American diet. They were forced to terminate the project when the pigs’ veterinarian told them it:8
“… was inhumane for our test subjects because they did not thrive on it. They got brittle bones and they stopped growing. They got fat, their hair fell out and they got pimples. So, it was a mess and that happened in three months.”
Researcher Calls for People to ‘Eat Like Pigs’
Ultraprocessed foods influence multiple organ systems, leading Berg to suggest humans should “eat like pigs.” While the statement seems inflammatory, Berg goes on to explain:9
“But this is not a mean spirited saying. We’re not comparing a group of people to the eating habits of an animal. We are using available scientific research that we already have on the animal agriculture side and we’re applying it at a biomedical level to save lives. To improve life. To expand life so that people can live it and live it abundantly.
My take home message today is this … we have an abundant supply of choices for nutrient-dense foods. There is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate. So … don’t dilute your nutrient-dense foods with all this unnecessary starch and sugar.”
To implement the recommendation that industry make obesity prevention a priority, the Institute of Medicine’s Health in Balance Report in 2005 recommended: “Food and beverage industries should develop product and packaging innovations that consider energy density, nutrient density, and standard serving sizes to help consumers make healthful choices.”10
However, instead of making changes to their products to reduce sugar and carbohydrate intake, the food industry became notorious for funding anti-obesity programs that moved the focus off what people were eating and on to physical activity, while research clearly shows that processed foods, sugary beverages and high-carbohydrate diets are the primary concern.11,12
Another researcher, Hans H Stein, Ph.D., from the University of Illinois, is a professor of animal science who has been working in the field for 30 years. Like Berg, he’s particularly interested in the role amino acids play to provide a healthy nutritive balance in protein. Nearly 10 years ago, he stepped in to help the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) evaluate nutrient digestibility, including amino acids.13
The new FAO index was known as the digestible indispensable amino acids score (DIAAS), for which Stein published the first paper in 2014. The FAO is using the data to identify high-quality protein to help improve the nutritional intake of the world’s most vulnerable populations.
From his work in the meat industry where the effects of a nutrient-poor diet are evident in months, Berg proposes that human nutrition is lagging behind animal nutrition.14 Although he suggests that the major source of balanced essential amino acids is found in red and processed meat, I would caution against processed meats in favor of grass fed red meat.
Is it Processed or Ultraprocessed?
While the terms processed and ultraprocessed are sometimes used interchangeably, they refer to two different food classifications, and one of them is ultra-serious. According to the NOVA food classification system designed by the Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition, ultraprocessed foods belong to Group 4.15
The definition includes substances that are found only in this category, such as additives, dyes, flavor enhancers and processing aids such as bulking and anti-bulking, anti-caking and emulsifiers that are not commonly found in regular cooking processes. According to the Group 4 description:
“The main purpose of industrial ultra-processing is to create products that are ready to eat, to drink or to heat, liable to replace both unprocessed or minimally processed foods that are naturally ready to consume, such as fruits and nuts, milk and water, and freshly prepared drinks, dishes, desserts and meals.
Common attributes of ultra-processed products are hyper-palatability, sophisticated and attractive packaging, multimedia and other aggressive marketing to children and adolescents, health claims, high profitability, and branding and ownership by transnational corporations.”
Foods that fall into this group are often cheap, convenient and designed to titillate your taste buds. Things like chips, carbonated soft drinks, instant sauces and many ready-to-heat products like pizza, chicken nuggets and hot dogs all fall into this category.
These often are heavy in refined carbohydrates and unhealthy fats. They’re also usually calorie-dense, which means you’ll eat more to get full. The BBC offers five ways to tell if the food is ultraprocessed:16
The food has a long list of ingredients.
The label may contain lists of unrecognizable ingredients such as additives designed to enhance flavor, color or even smell.
The ingredient list begins with fat, sugar and salt at or near the top, which is where the most prevalent ingredients are listed.
The product may appear to be fresh food, but will have an advertised long shelf life, indicating that may be full of preservatives.
The product is advertised with an aggressive marketing campaign.
As the BBC comments: “Ever seen a high-profile marketing campaign for apples and pears? Thought not.”
Ultraprocessed Food Raises Jeopardy of Infection and Death
Two studies published in the BMJ have linked eating ultraprocessed foods with an increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease and death. One study gathered data from 19,899 participants from 1999 to 2014.17 They followed up with them every two years to gather data on food and beverage consumption and classify these foods using the NOVA classification system.
The primary outcome measurement was an association between ultraprocessed foods and all-cause mortality. Using the self-reported data, the participants were categorized into low, low-medium, medium-high or high consumption. Those eating the highest amount of ultraprocessed foods were eating greater than four servings each day and had the greatest risk for all-cause mortality.
The researchers found for every additional serving, the risk of all-cause mortality increased by 18%, which led them to conclude that four or more servings were independently associated with a 62% relative increased risk of death from all causes and for every additional serving the risk rose again by 18%.18
In the second study, researchers collected data from 105,159 people over a mean follow-up of 5.2 years, during which they found eating ultraprocessed food was associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.19 The results remained statistically significant even after adjusting for known confounding factors and a second analysis.20
The current viral concern is SARS-CoV-2. However, based on historical data, it’s likely society will face other novel viral infections in the future, added to which each year society faces the cold and flu season and multiple types of bacterial infections.
Science has increasingly revealed the effect diet has on your gut microbiome and your subsequent ability to ward off disease. The more diverse your microbiome is with a healthy microbiota, the better it supports your immune system — which helps you fight viral illnesses like flu and SARS-CoV-2. According to Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College in London:21
“As well as mounting a response to infectious pathogens like coronavirus, a healthy gut microbiome also helps to prevent potentially dangerous immune over-reactions that damage the lungs and other vital organs. These excessive immune responses can cause respiratory failure and death.
The fine details of the interactions between the gut microbiome and the immune system are not fully understood. But there seems to be a link between the makeup of the microbiome and inflammation — one of the hallmarks of the immune response. Gut bacteria produce many beneficial chemicals and also activate vitamin A in food, which helps to regulate the immune system.”
Fermented foods and probiotics are the best route to optimal microbiome health, if they are traditionally made and unpasteurized. Healthy fermented choices include lassi (an Indian yogurt drink), fermented, grass fed organic milk (kefir), fermented soy or natto and different types of pickled fermentations of cabbage, turnips, eggplant, cucumbers, onions, squash and carrots.
Junk Food Promotes Hunger and Overeating
The average American diet that was used in the porcine study Berg discussed above, also promotes hunger, overeating and obesity. Through a variety of mechanisms, junk food can destroy your metabolism and affect your appetite control. As detailed in “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” your body is designed to naturally regulate how much you eat and energy you burn.
However, manufacturers have figured out how to override your intrinsic control by engineering foods that are hyper rewarding.22 This stimulates such a strong response in your brain that it becomes easy to overeat. Some of the most addictive junk foods on the market are potato chips that hit all three bliss points: sugar from the potato (and sometimes from added sugar), salt and fat.23
Although the food industry does not like the word “addiction” when referencing their products, a study published in 2007 showed 94% of rats who were allowed to choose between sugar water and cocaine, chose sugar.24 Even rats that were previously addicted to cocaine switched their preference to sugar.
Another Australian study found just a single week of binge eating on fast food changed appetite control in 110 volunteers to the point they were more likely to desire junk food even after they just ate.25 The participants also scored lower on memory tests.
The resulting overeating contributes to the rising rate of obesity and the current likelihood that Millennials are more prone to obesity related cancers than were their parents. A study in the Lancet by the American Cancer Society showed the rates of obesity-related cancers are rising at a steeper rate among millennials than baby boomers.26
It is likely not a coincidence that as ultraprocessed food has become a norm for many Americans, so has chronic illness. Some experts estimate that as much as 40% of health care spending in the U.S. are for diseases that are directly related to the overconsumption of sugar.27
The differences in the amount of sugar in ultraprocessed food versus minimally processed is dramatic. Data from a cross-sectional study using information from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey showed 21.1% of calories in ultraprocessed foods comes from sugar and concluded that reducing ultraprocessed foods could reduce “the excessive intake of added sugars in the USA.”28
The food you eat is a key factor that determines health and longevity. I believe that eating a diet of 90% real food and 10% processed foods is achievable for most and it could make a significant difference in your weight and overall health. To help you get started, you’ll find more information and suggestions in “Processed Foods Lead to Cancer and Early Death.”
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