How Bad Are Processed Foods for You Really?

You probably know that a fast-food burger isn’t healthy, but did you know that your lunch of ham and cheese on whole wheat bread might also be considered a highly processed meal?

Processed foods make up more than three-quarters of food and drink purchases in the U.S. Unfortunately, these products can lead to poor health. Eating clean and choosing whole foods over processed ones may help you live a healthier life and even extend your lifespan.

What Counts as a Processed Food?

When people use the term “processed foods,” they are often referring to pre-packaged or pre-prepared foods. However, any items that are changed from their original, raw form are technically processed. This means that things like canned peaches or frozen broccoli are processed!

Obviously, not all processed foods are equally bad — you’re going to get more nutrition from frozen vegetables than you are from ice cream. To reflect this, experts have come up with different categories of processed foods:

  • Minimally processed foods are raw ingredients prepared in simple ways. They include foods that are washed, chopped, roasted, or ground to help them last longer. Frozen vegetables and fruits, whole grains, milk, and nuts are minimally processed.
  • Processed culinary ingredients include foods that have been milled or refined, such as oils, salt, maple syrup, and flour.
  • Processed foods are items with added ingredients, such as sugar, salt, or spices. This category consists of foods like salad dressing, yogurt, pasta sauce, canned vegetables and fruits, and fresh bread.
  • Ultra-processed foods tend to contain a lot of extra hard-to-pronounce ingredients such as artificial colorings and preservatives. These foods are typically convenient and ready to eat. Examples include cereal, packaged bread, cookies, deli meat, frozen dinners, fast food, and soda.

Processed Foods and Your Health

When you eat processed foods, you’re likely eating extra amounts of substances like:

  • Saturated fats and trans fats — These unhealthy fats make you put on pounds and raise your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
  • Sugar — Some sugar is perfectly fine, but the added sugars often found in processed foods can lead to health problems like diabetes, inflammation, liver disease, heart disease, and certain types of cancer.
  • Salt — While your body needs some salt, too much can cause kidney disease, heart disease, or stroke.

The story remains the same when researchers have looked at the effects of diets containing a lot of processed items. For example, one clinical trial found that adults who ate ultra-processed foods for two weeks gained two pounds and those who had unprocessed foods lost two pounds. Additionally, adding just 10% more processed foods to your diet can make you significantly more likely to develop dementia and heart disease.

Processed foods can also take years off of your life. In one study, researchers found that people who ate the highest amounts of ultra-processed foods had a 31% greater chance of dying sooner.

How To Eat Fewer Processed Foods

The good news is that you don’t have to take an all-or-nothing approach to processed foods. A few small diet changes can bring better health even if you occasionally still eat some processed foods. You may want to try:  

  • Looking for less-processed versions of the foods you already eat. For example, switch to natural peanut butter that only contains peanuts without any extra preservatives or stabilizers.
  • Limiting foods that contain additives like sodium nitrate, monosodium glutamate, corn syrup, and hydrogenated vegetable oil.
  • Eating Greek yogurt, oatmeal, or a fruit smoothie for breakfast rather than reaching for a cereal box.
  • Swapping processed meats like deli meats and bacon with high-quality proteins such as minimally processed chicken, turkey, or fish.
  • Snacking on nuts, seeds, or dried fruit rather than reaching for a bag of chips.
  • Cutting out sugary drinks like soda, iced tea, and coffee with sweeteners.

If you’re serious about eating fewer processed foods, the most important ingredient may be time. Most of the quickest foods — like fast-food burgers, frozen pizzas, instant ramen, and packaged snacks — fall into the ultra-processed category. Minimally processed foods tend to require more prep work, so carving out time in your schedule is often necessary.

Taking time to make food may not be as hard as you think. Try waking up 15 minutes earlier to make yourself a vegetable omelet for breakfast, or spend 5 minutes before bed making overnight oats to start tomorrow off right. Watch one less episode of TV in the evenings and prepare a dinner made from whole foods. You could also take a couple of hours on Saturday or Sunday to meal prep some healthy, tasty meals for the upcoming week.

Learning To Eat Right

When it comes to switching up your diet, think slow and steady. It takes time to break down old habits and build up new ones. To make matters worse, eating processed foods is way more tempting — they’re usually cheaper, easier, and create cravings.

However, you can be successful when you set reasonable goals for yourself. If your diet is currently full of processed foods, try switching to minimally processed ingredients for just one meal, and go from there. Over time, you can create new habits that help ensure that most of your diet comes from whole foods.

By Mo McNulty

Maureen McNulty studied molecular genetics and English at Ohio State University. She has spent over a decade researching the genetic causes of — and possible treatments for — multiple types of cancer. Maureen is now a medical writer who is passionate about helping people use science to enrich their lives.