Ultra-Processed Food: Wtf and Should They be Part of an Athlete’s Diet? – PezCycling News

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We know that a quality and balanced diet is essential for both health and athletic performance. With all the buzz about ultra-processed foods, let’s dive into what they are and whether they can play any role in an athletic diet.

First disclaimers and disclosures. I’m a PhD in exercise science and have spent nearly 35 years reading, analyzing, and critiquing physiological research. While I’ve done research on metabolism, I’m not a registered or sports dietician. I’ve also never been funded by any nutrition company.

Pisa - Italia - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - illustration - illustratie food pictured during L’Eroica for biketourists - photo Cor Vos © 2014
Which is healthy?

I just spent a really fun few days at the College & Professional Sport Dietician Association’s annual conference in Kansas City, where I was an invited symposium speaker talking about nutrition and hydration in extreme environments. Besides sampling the wonderful BBQ scene, one session that was really topical was on ultra-processed foods (UPFs), a buzzword that is huge in the popular consciousness now as one of the biggest dietary scourge of our times.

You’ve probably heard the advice and warnings:

  • “If you can’t pronounce something, don’t eat it.”
  • “If your grandma can’t recognize it, don’t eat it.”
  • UPFs are industrial fabrications and Big Food’s way of addicting you.
  • UPFs cause [insert your favourite disease/condition here]

Where has the emphasis on UPFs come from?

A lot of the focus comes from the emergence of the NOVA food classification system, developed by researchers from the University of Sao Paolo in Brazil. Rather than the “dairy, meats, vegetables, grains” classification that many of us grew up with, NOVA focuses on the degree of processing that a food has undergone.

Group 1: Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods

Unprocessed is exactly what it sounds like – nothing has been done to the food. Think grabbing an apple from a tree or heck, shucking and slurping a raw oyster! Yes, you’re also allowed to cook unprocessed food and keep it in Group 1, within reason (e.g., steaming vegetables).

Minimally means things like cleaning and basic processing that removes but doesn’t add to the food. Think dehusking grain or rice; drying mushrooms, fruits, or herbs; pasteurizing juices. The key in this categorization is that nothing is added (e.g., salt, vitamins, oils, preservatives).

Good news for strict adherents to a minimally-processed diet: coffee is in Group 1.

Group 2: Oils, Fats, Salts, Sugar

NOVA also calls this category Processed Culinary Ingredients. In general, these aren’t foods that you would eat by itself, but they’re added to other foods to season, flavour, or cook them.

They’re also added as preservatives, which is where the line towards processed or ultra-processed foods start to get blurry. For example, we can add a little bit of salt to our cooking to enhance flavour of our freshly cooked eggs or pork (Group 1), or we can have heavily salted bacon (Group 3) or a pre-cooked breakfast pork patty with lots of salt and other preservatives (Group 4). That greyness in categorization – often based on quantity or intent of adding a Group 2 food – is one of the potential limitations of the NOVA system in everyday use.

Group 3: Processed Foods

For NOVA, Group 3 are INDUSTRIAL foods that generally combine Group 1 and 2 foods to improve palatability or preservation. The way to think of Group 3 foods is that they are still relatively minimally processed, are recognizable as some form of the original food, and generally have minimal (2-3) ingredients.

Some examples of Group 3 foods include:

  • Canned (with salt) or pickled legumes, vegetables, fish.
  • Bacon and beef jerky, along with other dried/cured/smoked meats and fishes.
  • Salted/sugared nuts/seeds.
  • Fermented alcoholic beverages (e.g., beer, wine).
  • Freshly made cheeses and bread.
  • Fruits in sugar syrup.

Remember that, practically, what we cook in our kitchen hopefully ends up being in Group 3, as we combine Group 1 with Group 2 in the process of cooking or seasoning. So despite the term “Processed” this is not a food group to be feared. Note though that industrial Group 3 foods should remain a side and complement to home-cooked Group 3 foods, so this is not a blank cheque to gorge on bacon!

If you can’t pronounce it – don’t eat it

Group 4: Ultra-Processed Foods

NOVA defines these as industrial formulations where synthetic additives or processes are used, or often where pre-cooking is done. Group 1 foods are often a minor proportion or even absent from UPFs.

So yes, these are indeed the things you’ve been advised to avoid for both health and performance. Think pop, chips, candy bars, cakes and pastries, and artificial spreads like Nutella. Also think much of the frozen foods aisle, including frozen pizza, chicken nuggets or fish sticks, and prepared frozen meals. And also think prepared meats like sandwich meats and sausages.

Because of the additives and processing, UPFs also include packaged bread, ice cream, flavoured yogurt, margarines and spreads, chocolate milk, non-freshly made cheeses (think cheese blocks or slices), and sweetened juices.

So yes, the hype/fear is real. For athletic performance and health, it generally is good advice to avoid or limit all or most of the UPFs listed above. BUT…

What Else is Classified UPF?

This can be a real bug bear, in that the UPF label applies to SO many foods, whether we prepare it ourselves or buy it at the store.

For example, all our sports nutrition (packaged bars, gels, drink mixes, chews, recovery mixes) are by definition UPFs. Same with protein powder.

And depending on your level of adherence to strict categories, this is where things can also break down into nonsense. For example, you make a fruit smoothie and that’s all wonderful Group 1 eating, but the second you add protein powder to it you’re now in Group 4 UPF range.

Same idea with making your own energy bars. At what point does your secret recipe tip over from Group 1/3 to Group 4?

Re-Defining UPF

So how should we deal with UPFs in our diet and the NOVA system? As always, I feel that balance and moderation are key, in that we should take what’s good from a system and filter out the non-important.

Rather than strictly categorizing our foods, with NOVA (and really with diet in general), we should be considering the intent and purpose of our eating. Don’t freak out that your protein smoothie is a UPF. If it’s primarily made with fresh and quality ingredients like fruit and minimally processed dairy, it’s going to be good nutritionally.

Same with making your own energy bars or even indulgences like cookies or pastries. Don’t worry about the categorization and just try to make it with as many healthy ingredients as possible. The process of making your own food, even if it’s an indulgence, is almost always going to lead to higher quality eating than just grabbing pre-packaged foods from the store.

Eat well, ride fast, and have fun!

References and Resources


The Flemish race fans diet

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