Good mouth/body health depends on good nutrition. Ask any holistic dentist. But while there are lots of ways of eating healthy – Mediterranean, Wise Traditions, paleo, and more – they all have one thing in common: They focus on real food.

Real food is whole or minimally processed food. It’s food that you would find in nature or could make simply from natural foods without industrial manipulation. It’s food that, as Michael Pollan most famously put it, your great, great grandmother would recognize as food.

And real food matters, because the more unnatural ingredients and the more processing, the less nutrition you get.

At the far end of the food quality spectrum is ultra-processed food. Actually, it might be more accurate to call it “products meant to be eaten.”

Ultra-processed foods are industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substances extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugar, starch and proteins), derived from food constituents (hydrogenated fats and modified starch), or synthesized in laboratories from food substrates or other organic sources (such as flavor enhancers, colors and food additives used to make the product hyper-palatable).

“They are not food,” says the nutrition professor who coined the term, Carlos A. Monteiro, in an excellent Newsweek article (well worth your time).

“They are formulations. They contain chemical compounds that do not belong to food—that should not belong to foods.”

ultra-processed foods raining into an open mouthThey’re also designed to be extremely addictive – so you keep buying more of the stuff – and wreak havoc on your body. Obesity and its companions such as diabetes and heart disease are just the start of it. Ultra-processed foods have been shown to change the composition of the bacteria that live in your gut, and not for the better. It appears to pave the way for many chronic health problems that are driven by diet, including gum disease, which itself is linked to a growing list of other inflammatory diseases.

Nor are ultra-processed diets linked only with metabolic conditions. For instance, one 2021 study found that they impair bone development, even when consumed at lower levels. It’ll be no surprise if future research identifies even more ways in which these products impact human health. The products are so relatively novel, there’s simply a lot that we don’t yet know about their effects.

But we do know that they’re not what we developed to eat at all. Yes, we can live on the stuff, just as cows can live on grain even though they’re meant to eat grass. They just can’t thrive.

We, too, can thrive when we eat the food we were born to eat – food that we can make into tasty meals. It’s one of the reasons why we keep a library of favorite recipes on our website – so our patients can get ideas of how they can eat healthfully and have that food be pleasurable to eat.

After all, happiness, too, has its contributions to make to our health. But that’s another blog post for another time…