top of page

The Vicious Cycle Of Ultra-Processed Foods

Written by: Kelsee Bobrowski, MS, NBC-HWC, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Executive Contributor Kelsee Bobrowski, MS, NBC-HWC

There has been a growing message in the last decade about the harmful effects of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and increasing rates of chronic diseases in the United States ² and globally. With the threat of cancers, non-communicable diseases, i.e., obesity, metabolic syndromes, type II diabetes, fatty liver disease, cardiovascular diseases, ² ³ and early onset neurodegenerative diseases, what is motivating people to continue to consume these foods?

Overhead shot of a people gathered around a dining table loaded with food

Ultra-processed foods (UPF)

UPFs are defined as foods brainstormed, produced, and distributed from industrial environments which consist of highly refined carbohydrates, fats, sugar additives, sodium, and/or flavor enhancers. ¹ ³ How can you tell if it is an UPF? The nutrition label with nutrient and ingredient information might be helpful. UPFs will also be desirable and easy. The cultural shift of “busy-ness” has greatly changed the domestic preparation of meals as we have extensive extra-curricular activities for children, later working hours for adults, and a higher debt-to-income ratio. These industrial plants create ready-made meals, easy-grab snacks, and other clever marketing terminology to fit the busy and inexpensive lifestyle of Western culture. The shift of culture brought about a need for a shift in diet; these manufacturers capitalized on that. Studies have shown that the increased consumption of UPFs has led to more inflammatory markers in individuals. Inflammation is hypothesized to have a high correlation with the development of non-communicable diseases like metabolic syndromes and dementia. ³

The gut has been termed “the second brain” for the last three decades. We are learning that it is more like the brain is 1A and the gut is 1B. Gut microbiota has a functional role in the absorption of nutrients for energy production and metabolism within the liver, adipose tissue (i.e., body fat in subcutaneous and visceral forms), skeletal muscle, and brain. Inflammation can be triggered by the microbiota if it has dysregulation due to UPFs. The inflammatory response of certain foods—both whole and UPFs—can be tracked through food journaling or completion of a food sensitivity test.

It's not all your fault

We return to the question in the introduction. Why do Western cultures continue to consume UPFs with staggering evidence published about the harmful effects of these foods? Two reasons: 1) they are affordable and accessible, and 2) they are modified to become craved by our brains.

Drive ten miles and count the fast-food restaurants you pass. Go to the grocery store and fill two carts for $150.00 USD; one cart contains UPFs and the other whole foods. What conclusions do you anticipate of these experiments? These are the issues described in the literature as barriers to reducing or eliminating UPFs from the Western diet. ¹ ² ³ Making whole foods affordable, having the time to compound nutrients in domestic settings, and having environmental availability to whole foods in certain parts of the country are roadblocks to reducing type II diabetes, obesity, fatty liver disease, metabolic syndromes, and chronic diseases developed in association with those diseases. Let us not ignore the other reason most of the population consumes UPFs; they are craved.

Food is addictive. ¹ ³ Consumption of UPFs emits dopamine—our pleasure neurotransmitter in the brain. Dopamine spikes like those seen in consumption of UPFs are evaluated in people who use substances like opioids and alcohol and gambling. ¹ This means that our brain can begin to crave and seek out these foods even with the logical evaluation of negative side effects (e.g., a person with a gambling addiction seeking the opportunity for one more bet even though they are bankrupt). The food scientists and the industries manufacturing these foods have gained high profits from this neural interaction. ³ Part of the definition of a substance use addiction is having a negative physiological response when removing the substance. Literature suggests that animal participants subjected to a high-UPF diet continued to prefer the UPF option versus the whole food option. Not only was that food preferred but there were somatic and behavioral responses when UPFs were eliminated, and whole foods were presented as the only option.

Considerations for your weight loss journey

  • Evaluate how you are nourishing your body. If it is easy and accessible, it is most likely a UPF and counterbalances your efforts.

  • Complete a food sensitivity test to evaluate the UPFs and whole foods that could be causing inflammatory reactions in your microbiota.

  • Work with a trained professional in diet or nutrition to help educate you on how your food sensitivities can be modified and a whole food diet can be possible with your lifestyle.

  • Talk with a health and wellness coach to help establish your vision for wellness and support you through your goals to get there.

Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!

Kelsee Bobrowski, MS, NBC-HWC Brainz Magazine

Kelsee Bobrowski, MS, NBC-HWC, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Kelsee Bobrowski is a board certified health and wellness coach with additional advanced certifications in personal training, strength and conditioning, and nutrition. With a background in behavioral science, she has created a business of long-term success for weight loss clientele. She is the owner and sole propietor of Phoenix Fitness, Health, and Wellness, LLC in Boise, Idaho, USA. Kelsee is also a consultant for Alpine Wellness Clinic as the weight loss specialist and adjunct psychology instructor for College of Western Idaho. Her mission is to allow clients to "rise from their ashes" and use their strengths toward their wellness vision.



  • [1] Gearhardt, A. N., & Schulte, E. M. (2021). Is food addictive? A review of the science. Annual Review of Nutrition, 41(1), 387-410.

  • [2] Leonie, E., Machado, P., Zinöcker, M., Baker, P., & Lawrence, M. (2020). Ultra-processed foods and health outcomes: A narrative review. Nutrients. Advance online publication. doi:10.3390/nu12071955

  • [3] Lustig, R. H. (2020). Ultra-processed food: Addictive, toxic, and ready for regulation.

  • Nutrients. Advance online publication. doi:10.3390/nu12113401

  • [4] Martínez Leo, E. E., & Segura Campos, M. R. (2020). Effect of ultra-processed diet on gut microbiota and thus its role in neurodegenerative diseases. Nutrition, 71(1), Article e110609. Advanced

  • [5] Parnarouskis, L., Leventhal, A. M., Ferguson, S. G., & Gearhardt, A. N. (2022). Withdrawal: A key consideration in evaluating whether highly processed foods are addictive. Etiology and Pathophysiology: Obesity Reviews, 23(1), Article e13507.

  • [6] Shi, Z. (2019). Gut microbiota: An important link between western diet and chronic diseases. Nutrients. Advance online publication.


  • linkedin-brainz
  • facebook-brainz
  • instagram-04


bottom of page