The Risks of Ultra-Processed Foods + What to Eat Instead

by | Mar 28, 2024 | Blog, General Wellness, Nutrition

Ultra-processed foods are not good for your body. This is probably not shocking news. But how bad are they? 

A new comprehensive research study suggests that ultra-processed foods may increase the risk of developing a laundry list of chronic health issues, including physical and mental health problems. An increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, anxiety, and depression are only a few examples. 

Avoiding ultra-processed foods and following a nutrient-dense whole foods diet is more important than ever before. It is critical for reducing the risk of health issues, improving health problems, and increasing overall wellness. 

In this article, I want to delve into the risks of ultra-processed foods, discuss new research findings on the topic, and offer some recommendations on how to improve your diet. Let’s dive in.

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?

Ultra-processed foods are also called highly processed foods or overly processed foods. These are foods, or rather, food-like products, that have been altered and processed to a level that they are unrecognizable compared to their original form. 

These foods include starches, sugar, fats, and hydrogenated oils extracted or processed from other foods. They also include additives, artificial colouring, artificial flavors, preservatives, and other artificial ingredients. They are shelf stable, which means they last for a long time before expiring. This can be years or even a decade. You may find that even after the expiration day, they will look or taste just the same. What’s most problematic about ultra-processed foods, though, is that they can lead to serious health issues. I will discuss these health risks soon. But first, let’s talk about the difference between ultra-processed and minimally processed foods.

Ultra-Processed vs Minimally Processed

Though you will hear me talking about the importance of eating nutrient-dense whole foods, it doesn’t mean that processed foods are always bad for you. The word “processed” means that the food has been changed from its original food. It doesn’t mean it’s loaded with artificial or other unhealthy ingredients. 

Protein powder may be processed, but it may still offer important nutrition in your smoothie. Frozen vegetables or gluten-free pasta may be processed. Yet they can be part of a healthy diet. Minimally processed foods are not overly processed, just as much as they need to be. They don’t include unhealthy ingredients and unnecessary additives. The list of ingredients is not a mile long and easy to understand. Some of these minimally processed foods have some added vitamins or minerals in them. 

It is still important to read the labels. Some minimally processed foods still may have a little bit of added sugar or refined oils in them. You also want to check for allergens. 

I recommend that you choose produce (i.e. fruits and vegetables) and other whole foods and aim for home-cooked meals and homemade snacks. This is not always accessible, affordable, or convenient, in which case minimally processed foods may come into the picture.

Ultra-processed foods are another story. They are processed to the max. They are loaded with refined sugar, refined oil, salt, food coloring, artificial flavors, preservatives, and other inflammatory ingredients. Furthermore, they may be shelf-stable, quick, and convenient, but they don’t resemble real food anymore and carry some serious health risks.

Minimally processed foods include:
  • Frozen or canned vegetables or fruits
  • Dried and canned beans, lentils, and chickpeas
  • Whole grains, rice, and gluten-free grains
  • Roasted nuts and seeds
Ultra-processed foods include but are not limited to:
  • Potato chips and crackers
  • Chocolate and candy bars
  • Packaged cookies, cakes, and desserts 
  • Ice cream and frozen yogurt
  • Chicken nuggets
  • Hot dogs, sausages, and other processed meat
  • Packaged soup
  • Sweetened breakfast cereals, granola, and bars
  • Soft drinks including soda
  • Frozen meals and TV dinner
  • Salad dressings and condiments
  • Most fast foods

Risks of Ultra-Processed Foods

The idea that ultra-processed foods carry some serious health risks is not new. Over the years, numerous studies have been published on the specific health risks of ultra-processed foods. For the longest time we just called them “junk food”. And as I’ve been known to say – more than once – there’s no such thing as junk food; there’s either junk, or there’s food!

A 2017 review published in Current Obesity Reports has found that ultra-processed foods may increase the risk of obesity and related cardiometabolic issues, including high fasting glucose, hypertension, poor cholesterol levels, and metabolic syndrome (1). A 2019 randomized controlled trial published in Cell Metabolism has found that increased caloric intake from ultra-processed foods can lead to weight gain (2).

A 2021 systematic review published in Nutrients has found a link between ultra-processed foods and an increased risk of diabetes (3). A 2021 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology has found that an ultra-processed diet may increase the risk of cardiovascular issues and related mortality (4). A 2023 study published in The Lancet has found that an ultra-processed diet may increase the risk of cancer and cancer-related mortality, including ovarian, breast, and brain cancer (5).

These studies and reviews generally looked at one or only a few health conditions. Now, a recent (2024) study published in BMJ has found an association between eating too many ultra-processed foods and the increased risk of over 30 health conditions (6).

Researchers of this multinational study examined 266,666 men and women from 7 European countries. They found that an increased consumption of ultra-processed foods can increase the risk of dealing with two or more chronic health issues. 

They found that ultra-processed foods increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and related mortality, gastrointestinal diseases, obesity, cancer, wheezing, respiratory issues, adverse sleep-related outcomes, anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. The more ultra-processed food someone consumes, the higher their risk is for developing a condition and the higher their risk for developing several conditions.

Just like prior studies, this new research highlights the importance of improving our food sources and diet to reduce the risk of physical and mental health issues and improve our health. Due to the related health risks, we need to reduce our consumption of ultra-processed foods, both individually and as a society. We need to focus on fresh, nutrient-dense, whole foods. Individually, we need to be mindful of our food choices, and as a society, we need to ensure universal access to nutritious whole foods.

How to Avoid Ultra-Processed Foods

The easiest way to avoid ultra-processed foods is to avoid processed and packaged foods altogether. Avoid the middle aisles in your grocery stores with all the packaged products and keep it to the produce section with whole foods. Shop at your local farmers market. Order from local CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) that offer produce boxes. Grow your own food.

Completely avoiding anything beyond fresh produce and animal products can be difficult. Making your own rice, coffee, olive oil, or cheese is probably not an option. At times, you may want to rely on some healthier packaged foods for convenience. Choose minimally processed foods, such as dried beans, gluten-free whole grains, and frozen vegetables.  Always look at the nutrition and ingredient labels. Choose products with the least amount of ingredients and ingredients you understand. To avoid food additives, preservatives, allergens, and other unhealthy ingredients, read the labels carefully. 

Ingredients to avoid include, but are not limited to:
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Hydrogenated oils
  • Carrageenan
  • Food dyes
  • Potassium bromate
  • Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite
  • Sulfites (like sulfur dioxide, potassium bisulfite, sodium bisulfite and sodium sulfite)

You may also use some of my articles on how to avoid unhealthy foods, reduce your food triggers, and how to pick better options. 

Here are a few articles I recommend reading:
  • Sugar (Read here): The problems with refined sugar, what to avoid, and what to eat instead.
  • Gluten (Read here): Should you avoid gluten and what to eat instead.
  • Oils (Read part 1 here & part 2 here): The problem with refined oils, what to avoid, and what to eat instead.
  • Heavy metals (Read here): What heavy metals are hiding in food and what to avoid.
  • Mold (Read here): Some foods may be high in mold, what to avoid and what to choose instead.
  • Histamine (Read here): A guide to a low-histamine diet.
  • Oxalates, salicylates, lectin, casein, yeast, and FODMAPS (Read here): A guide to uncovering food intolerances beyond histamine intolerance and how to navigate these issues.
  • Elimination diet (Read here): A guide if you are looking to embark on an elimination diet to uncover food sensitivities, food intolerances, and other food-related issues.

What to Eat Instead of Ultra-Processed Foods

I recommend a diet based on nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory foods. These include greens, vegetables, sprouts, herbs, spices, fermented foods, fruits, nuts, seeds, pasture-raised eggs, grass-fed meat, pasture-raised poultry, wild-caught fish and seafood, and wild-game. Choose organic food whenever possible. If you can’t buy organic, pay attention to the list of Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen for guidance. Buy local produce and artisan goods. 

Pay attention to your personal food allergies, food sensitivities, and other health needs. Remember, we are all different. Some people may thrive on a certain food, but you may not. For example, fermented foods are a great choice for many, but you need to avoid them if you have histamine intolerance. 

Aim for home-cooked meals. I recommend checking out this article about creating a healthy pantry. I also recommend that you read this article on easy and healthy food prep methods.  Learn to meal prep. Pack your lunches. Before heading to the golf course, I ready my golf bag with trail mix, raw almonds, fruit and hard-boiled organic eggs.  This means I can avoid the sausage, hot dog, chips and chocolate bar that the cafe offers after 9 holes, or that the beverage cart comes around with.

Try new recipes. Make cooking fun. When this is not possible, you may search for a local healthy food delivery system. Save eating out for special occasions and choose trusted restaurants that make real food instead of fast food places.

Next Steps

Are you dealing with gluten-related symptoms? Do you need to reduce or eliminate gluten from your diet? Do you need help? Looking at your nutrition is key to better wellness. If you want to know more about how nutrition and healthy dietary strategies may improve your health, follow my blog or schedule a consultation for personalized advice.

If you are dealing with any chronic health issues and need advice on how to improve your nutrition and health, I welcome you to start a functional medicine consultation with me for further personalized guidance. You may book your consultation here

Check out my Histamine Intolerance Course here. Learn on your own time, from anywhere. Get an inside look at the most helpful functional medicine tests for pinpointing imbalances, ways to identify and manage the most common (and sometimes surprising) mast cell triggers, and learn what to eat, what to avoid, and why.

Learn more about working with Dr. Gannage