Does Consuming Ultra-Processed Food Increase Your Risk of Obesity, Diabetes or Cancer?

07 April 2022

Article by: Liew Shu Ling, Corporate Communications

According to the World Health Organisation, 70% of deaths worldwide today are due to Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD). These include cardiovascular diseases, cancer, respiratory diseases and diabetes; which are caused mainly by unhealthy diets and lifestyles. This is why on World Health Day, Sunway Medical Centre, Sunway City wants to advocate for a #HealthierTomorrow by helping people learn to make better food choices.  

“On a day-to-day basis, we want convenience, time-saving methods of preparing food, and in comes the role of ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods usually contain ingredients that people would not add when cooking homemade food such as colourings, preservatives, sweeteners, stabilisers and emulsifiers. Ultra-processed foods can be cheap, convenient and tasty.” states Dr Teoh Wei Leng, Consultant Endocrinologist at Sunway Medical Centre, Sunway City.   

Junk Food

Due to its palatable taste & cost-saving nature, most people consume these foods without paying much attention to the poor health consequences they are faced with afterwards.  

Types of processed foods & its potential health risk 

There are generally 4 types of food groups based on how they are processed.  

Process methods  Example of foods 
Unprocessed or minimally processed  Fruit, seeds, stems, roots, leaves, eggs, meat, milk, offal, mushrooms, algae and grains 
Processed culinary ingredients Sugar, salt, butter, lard, oils, vinegar 
Processed foods  Fermented food, tinned fruit and vegetables, salted nuts, meat, bacon, processed cheese and unpackaged freshly made breads 
Ultra-processed foods & beverages  Ice cream, sausages, crisps, mass-produced bread, breakfast cereals, carbonated drinks, fruit flavoured yogurt/ drinks, instant soups and some alcoholic drinks eg. whisky, gin and rum

Processed foods are essentially made by adding sugar, oil, salt or other substances. Ultra-processed foods on the other hand are foods that contain many added ingredients like saturated fats, added sugar and salt, flavouring, preservatives, thickening or stabilising agents, etc. Food processing in ultra-processed foods may also involve high temperature heating that can possibly affect the structure of the food itself. 

“Each processed food group has its own purpose and not all processed foods are unhealthy. As long as the nutritional value in the food doesn’t change, it is okay to be consumed. However, ultra-processed food in general contains higher sugar, salt and processed fat, which in some cases can spike insulin levels and make people eat more, resulting in over-consumption.” explains Celeste Lau, Senior Manager of Dietetics at Sunway Medical Centre, Sunway City.  

Dr Teoh adds further that a moderate consumption of ultra-processed foods & beverages on a regular basis can lead to obesity. Obesity in turn can lead to the development of metabolic syndrome like abdominal obesity, diabetes, hypertension, high triglycerides level, and low HDL cholesterol level. These are known health conditions that can lead to an increased risk of heart disease and strokes. 

“This observation has been confirmed in multiple studies, which has shown that people who consumed a higher proportion of ultra-processed foods have higher obesity rates, poorer nutritional quality in their diet, higher intake of sodium and sugar, lower intakes of fibres, wholegrains, fruits, and vegetables. This then leads to a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.” Dr Teoh explains.  

A guidebook introduced by Sunway Healthcare Group called “Know Diabetes”  also recommends that including more fibre-rich fruits and vegetables and limiting added sugar in one’s diet can assist in managing the disease.  

Obesity, diabetes and increased risk of heart diseases 

Dr Patrick Tiau, Consultant Cardiologist at Sunway Medical Centre, Sunway City shares that overweight and obese patients have been associated with other risks of cardiovascular disease that can accelerate the process of fat, cholesterol and other substances build-up in our artery walls.  

“When it comes to diabetes, diabetic people are more prone to develop cardiovascular disease than others because diabetes mellitus, or high blood sugar, can block and damage the vessels carrying blood to your heart, starving the heart from oxygen and blood supply,” says Dr Patrick. 

“When your heart is unable to pump blood effectively, it can lead to fatigue, difficulty in breathing, and leg swelling. Heart failure tends to get worse over time, but early diagnosis and treatment can improve symptoms and delay the disease progression. Since patients with diabetes are at risk of heart failure, thus prevention of heart failure has become an important therapeutic goal in the management of diabetes.”    

Dr Patrick recommends that people who are overweight or obese should exercise regularly and eat a healthy, balanced diet. It also helps if they are able to consult their doctors about creating a diet and exercise plan that works best for them based on their current health status. 

Are ultra-processed foods & beverages linked to colorectal cancer? 

Several large-scale studies have recently found that a 10% increment in the consumption of ultra-processed foods and drinks were associated with over 10% increase in the risk of developing colorectal cancer. 

Foods with high fibre content such as fruits and vegetables offer protection against colorectal cancer, while a low intake of these nutrients, accompanied by the presence of additives and other substances with carcinogenic potential in ultra-processed foods are usually of lower nutritional quality. Some of these harmful substances are sometimes present in the packaging itself if they were in direct contact with food during production, processing, and storage.   

Dr Aqilah Othman, Clinical Oncologist at Sunway Medical Centre elaborates, “While ultra-processed food and drinks are not classified as carcinogenic in general; they contain specific components that may be dangerous. For example, processed meats have been classified as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). When consumed, the nitrites can be converted into cancer-causing chemicals e.g., N-nitroso compounds or NOCs. Carrageenan and carboxymethylcellulose (CMC), commonly used thickening agents have been associated with intestinal inflammation which as a result can increase the risk of colorectal cancer.”  

Healthy food swaps you can make for your family 

Lifestyle habits are best ingrained during the developmental years, according to Dr Aqilah, and parents are the best role models in their family.  

“Children emulate those closest to them and they develop conscious decisions and lifelong habits through observation and activities in daily lives. Thus, parents themselves need to be proactive in reducing their risks of cancers like colorectal cancer for example by not smoking, eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, reducing alcohol and red meat intake, maintaining a healthy weight, participating in regular exercise and attending bowel cancer screening when it is due. These can be done as a family unit, involving their children in the process of food selection during grocery shopping, food preparation for family meals and scheduling time for fun, enjoyable physical activities,” she adds. 

Planning for a healthier meal and don’t know what kinds of ultra-processed foods you can swap out? Check out the list below for some healthier options: 

Ultra-processed ​  Processed ​  Home version ​ 
Breakfast cereals ​  Muesli ​  Oatmeal with honey and fruits​ 
Soft drinks​  Kombucha​  Fruit infused water​ 
White bread ​  Whole-wheat bread with minimal ingredients Homemade multigrain bread ​ 
Canned coffee​  Store-bought cold brew ​  Drip coffee ​ 
Energy drink ​  Cold-pressed fruit juice ​  Iced green tea​ 
Flavored low-fat yogurt ​ Plain Greek yogurt​ with frozen fruits Homemade yogurt​ and fresh fruits 
Packaged chicken nuggets​ Deli rotisserie chicken Grilled chicken made from scratch

By ensuring there are healthier food options available at home, parents and individuals can ensure they are able to make better food choices for themselves and their families. For example, swap biscuits for freshly baked bread and cheese, sweetened orange juice for the fruit itself, and instant foods for home-cooked meals that have been cooked in large batches and frozen for busy days.  

This World Health Day, prioritise your health by doing regular health screenings. Screenings can provide you with the peace of mind you need to keep your health in check. For individuals who want to assess their health risks, they can also do a simple check for symptoms online at Sunway Medical Centre’s symptom checker: