In this hectic world, more and more of us are turning to processed foods to feed our families. They are quick, easy and ready to eat whenever we are. The term “processed foods”, include anything that has been “cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed in nutritional composition with fortifying, preserving or preparing in different way”. While there is a wide range of what is considered processed- from minimally to ultra processed- many studies now show that consuming processed foods increases the risk of all-cause mortality. Some studies have even found that risk increase to be as high as 62%!
Most of the studies we explored focused on “ultra-processed foods”. One source shared the spectrum of food processing:
- Minimally processed foods — such as bagged spinach, cut vegetables and roasted nuts — often are simply pre-prepped for convenience.
- Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness include canned tomatoes, frozen fruit and vegetables, and canned tuna.
- Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture (sweeteners, spices, oils, colors and preservatives) include jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt and cake mixes.
- Ready-to-eat foods — such as crackers, granola and deli meat — are more heavily processed.
- The most heavily processed foods (often referred to as ultra-processed) often are pre-made meals including frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners, chips, candy, packaged soups, etc. that go thorough multiple processes.
Processed Foods Contribute to Weight Gain
It’s widely shared and understood that processed foods contribute to weight gain. Studies provide strong evidence that processed foods not only tend to make people eat more, they may result in dramatic and relatively rapid weight gain and have other detrimental health effects. Beyond its link to overeating, a diet heavy in processed food is also linked with all kinds of other health problems, according to previous research. People who consume processed foods regularly are more likely to get cancer and die quicker than others.
The research, published in the journal Cell Metabolism, found that people ate significantly more calories and gained more weight when they were fed a diet that was high in ultra-processed foods like breakfast cereals, muffins, white bread, sugary yogurts, low-fat potato chips, canned foods, processed meats, fruit juices and diet beverages. These foods caused a rise in hunger hormones compared to a diet that contained mostly minimally processed foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, grilled chicken, fish and beef, and whole grains, nuts and seeds.
New evidence points to an increase of cardiovascular and heart disease
Several long term studies aimed at understanding how the body interacts with processed foods and their potential impact have found clear evidence of the harm processed foods have on the body.
One study that was carried out over the course of 13.5 years showed that those that consumed 2.3 servings/day of ultra-processed foods had a significantly higher risk of cardiovascular disease and heart disease. Below that threshold of consumption, no significant association to higher risk was found. The study also explored whether certain subsets of people showed different outcomes, and found that women were at a higher risk of mortality from ultra-processed foods than men.
The more processed foods were consumed, the higher the risk of all-case mortality. In fact, there was found to be an independent association with a 62% increased risk in those that consumed greater than four servings daily. That amount increased by 18% with each additional serving of ultra-processed foods.
Another study looked at any potential link between ultra-processed foods and increased mortality from the angle of what percent of energy (calories) were consumed by study participants. Over the course of 7.7 years, participants whose food intake was compromised of 33% or more energy intake from ultra-processed foods were found to have a 44% increased all-cause mortality risk compared to those who only consumed 14% of their energy from ultra-processed foods. This led the researchers to suggest that nutritional guidelines be modified to encourage a focus on unprocessed, or minimally processed, foods that would decrease the risk of all-cause death while still providing the necessary energy (caloric intake) to support a healthy lifestyle. Some guidelines, such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans already focus on nutrient rich foods and drinks in addition to being mindful of caloric limits (unique to each individual).
What about ultra-processed foods increases the risk of all-cause death?
Ultra-processed foods bring about a variety of dietary red-flags. They are often packed with unnecessary fats (mainly saturated), instead of healthy fats (read more about the difference, here). Sodium is often on the higher side, along with sugar levels. Processed foods are also notorious for lacking crucial vitamins and nutrients, including fiber, that the body requires for basic function. In addition to the ingredients that don’t contribute any nutritional benefit, processed foods also contain “neo-formed contaminants”. These are toxic chemicals created by the additives and complex reactions the foods must undergo to process and package them. So we’re eating components known to be neurotoxic, genotoxic and potentially carcinogenic and toxic to reproduction!
Another concern? That processed foods have been found to be addicting, raising questions about how the additives and processing interact with our hormones and our reward-system. How exactly processed foods set off this chain of events is unknown. Perhaps it’s the fat, sugar or salt content. The way it is processed or the taste, texture or easy accessibility. Whatever the cause, manufacturers specifically devise combinations to make these foods irresistible.
Sugar Consumption May Be Reason Behind Increased Risk
Several studies hypothesize a link between sugar content in processed foods and the increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Other studies have also demonstrated an association between a high-sugar diet and greater risk of dying from heart disease.
Published in 2014 in JAMA Internal Medicine, Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and his colleagues shared “Excess sugar’s impact on obesity and diabetes is well documented, but one area that may surprise many men is how their taste for sugar can have a serious impact on their heart health.” Adult men take in an average of 24 teaspoons of added sugar per day, according to the National Cancer Institute, compared to the recommended maximum intake of 6 teaspoons. For both genders, though, the 15-year study showed that people who consumed 17% to 21% of their calories from added sugar had a 38% higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease compared with those who consumed 8% of their calories as added sugar.
Too much sugar impacts the whole body by raising blood pressure and increasing inflammation. This, in turn, can wreak havoc on the body by leading to decreased blood flow and oxygen throughout the body. Over time, chronic inflammation can lead your body to attack healthy tissue and organs, and increase pain levels, among other issues. Excess sugar consumption also leads to weight gain, which can lead to diabetes, fatty liver disease, all of which contribute to a higher risk for cardiovascular disease like heart attack and strokes.
Processed foods are easy, go-to products, but they aren’t worth the harm they ultimately cause from too much sugar, fats and carbohydrates, in addition to toxins and weight gain. Switching to nutrient-rich ingredients that benefit our bodies may be more time consuming but it’s the only way to keep us, and those we love, healthy and safe.