A bag of chips, packaged breakfast cereal, and chicken nuggets from a fast-food restaurant are all examples of ultra-processed foods, and they make up around 60% of the calories in the average adult’s diet.
Why are they so popular? It’s the convenience factor: ultra-processed foods are ready to heat up and eat. With people having less time to prepare healthy meals at home, ultra-processed foods are a way to get a meal on the table quickly. But for health, they have downsides.
Ultra-processed foods are anything but natural. These foods wrapped in neat, tidy packages with tantalizing colors are the concoctions of food companies. They contain food processed in ways that reduce their nutritional content and contain a combination of sugar, fat, salt, and additives.
These foods are designed to taste good and make you crave more of them. When you eat these overly processed, it also crowds healthier fare off your plate.
Not only do ultra-processed foods contribute to weight gain and obesity, but they also increase the risk of developing other health problems like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Let’s look at the reasons why ultra-processed foods are harmful to health and well-being.
Ultra-Processed Foods Harm Cardiometabolic Health
Heart health matters! Heart disease is still the number one cause of death in Western countries, and ultra-processed foods harm heart and metabolic health and contribute to the epidemic of heart disease and stroke.
One study looked at five markers of cardiometabolic health: blood lipids, body mass index, blood pressure, blood sugar, and whether someone had cardiovascular disease. It found that just under 7% of people are healthy based on all these parameters. With the growing emphasis on ultra-processed foods, Americans are eating themselves into weight gain and health problems.
Ultra-processed foods, with their refined carbohydrates, trigger harmful blood sugar spikes and increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Plus, ten percent of the population is sensitive to the high sodium content these foods contain and experience a rise in blood pressure when they consume them. In addition, refined carbohydrates raise blood triglycerides, another risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
Manufacturers Target Ultra-Processed Foods to Children
It’s also concerning that manufacturers target ads for junk food, like breakfast cereal, to kids. Children are especially vulnerable to a diet high in sugar and low in nutrition because their bodies are still developing. Consuming an abundance of ultra-processed foods sets them up for a lifetime of health problems. Eating preferences form early, and the desire to eat cheap, processed foods stays with them into adolescence and adulthood.
Manufacturers woo children with cartoons on packaging and fun-sounding names like “Oreos” or “Goldfish.” These products also tend to be cheaper than other options, which makes them attractive for families on a budget — but they also lead to expensive health problems later.
Approximately 20% of children in the U.S. are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Childhood weight gain increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases, which can have serious health consequences in adulthood. In fact, pediatricians are seeing type 2 diabetes at younger and younger ages.
Ultra-processed foods contribute to these issues because they’re high in sugar and fat, as well as low in nutrients like fiber and vitamins. Children who eat too many of these foods also tend to consume fewer fruits, vegetables, and whole grains — all of which contain essential nutrients that support healthy growth and development. Ultra-processed foods start kids off down the wrong path!
Ultra-Processed Foods May Be Harmful to Gut Health
Ultra-processed foods also contain additives, including emulsifiers, that could harm the delicate balance of bacteria in the gut, the so-called gut microbiome. As Holistic Primary Care points out, research suggests additives in ultra-processed foods may disrupt the gut’s delicate intestinal barrier and contribute to bowel issues, like irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel diseases, food intolerances, and even autoimmune conditions. At the very least, eating a diet rich in ultra-processed foods leaves less room for fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that foster a healthy gut microbiome.
They May Be Addictive
Whether it’s the salt or the sugar, it’s hard to put down packaged snacks such as potato chips or M&M’s. You can’t eat just one! Plus, animal studies suggest that sugar and even salty foods have addictive potential. They stimulate reward centers in the brain that release dopamine and create feelings of reward. And once you develop a taste for heavily flavored processed foods, you’re less likely to enjoy food in its natural state.
Ultra-Processed Foods Are Harmful to Mental Health Too
Ultra-processed foods aren’t just bad for your heart and metabolic health, they affect mood. An analysis of 17 studies that looked at patterns of junk and ultra-processed food consumption found that junk food eaters were more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression than those who didn’t indulge in ultra-processed foods.
It would be shortsighted to think that what you put in your body doesn’t impact how you feel and your mental outlook. Certain vitamins and minerals, like magnesium and vitamin B6, are important for mental health.
The Bottom Line
Dietitians, doctors, and scientists don’t agree on everything, but most believe that replacing ultra-processed foods and refined carbohydrates with fresh, whole foods is one of the smartest moves you can make for your health — and now you know why.
- Processed Foods & Energy Drinks: A Public Health Emergency – Holistic Primary Care. Holistic Primary Care. Published August 2, 2022. Accessed August 7, 2022. holisticprimarycare.net/topics/nutrition-a-lifestyle/processed-foods-energy-drinks-a-public-health-emergency/
- “Ultra-processed food consumption among US adults from 2001 to 2018” by Filippa Juul, Niyati Parekh, Euridice Martinez-Steele, Carlos Augusto Monteiro and Virginia W Chang, 14 October 2021, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
- “Ultra-Processed Food Consumption and Mental Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies” by Melissa M. Lane, Elizabeth Gamage, Nikolaj Travica, Thusharika Dissanayaka, Deborah N. Ashtree, Sarah Gauci, Mojtaba Lotfaliany, Adrienne O’Neil, Felice N. Jacka and Wolfgang Marx, 21 June 2022, Nutrients.
- “Ultraprocessed Food: Addictive, Toxic, and Ready for Regulation” by Robert H. Lustig, 5 November 2020, Nutrients.
- “The study of food addiction using animal models of binge eating” by Nicole M. Avena, 16 September 2010, Appetite.
- Childhood Overweight & Obesity. Published 2022. Accessed August 7, 2022. .cdc.gov/obesity/childhood/index.html
- “What are ultra-processed foods and are they bad for our health?.” 9 January 2020, .health.harvard.edu/blog/what-are-ultra-processed-foods-and-are-they-bad-for-our-health-2020010918605.