It’s hard to escape processed foods. With food companies churning out endless new choices for customers, supermarket aisles are stuffed with TV dinners, all kinds of potato chips, and instant ramen that stretch as far as the eye can see.
Now, we must stress that not all processed foods are inherently bad. As Harvard Men’s Health Watch pointed out, food processing can include canning, freezing, or milling, which means that healthier foods like canned beans and fish and plain yogurt come under the "processed foods" umbrella.
Processed foods get more troublesome, though, when they become "ultra processed." These foods have ingredients — like sugar, trans fats, and refined carbs – added to them, which can cause unbalanced and negative health effects on the body (via Medical News Today).
With ultra-processed foods accounting for over half of the average American’s daily calories, per the American Heart Association, knowing the effects that processed foods have on us is vital — particularly if it’s all, or most, of what we eat. Let’s take a look at how eating only processed foods can impact your body, shall we?
The more processed food you eat, the more you crave
Now, look, we get it. Processed foods, particularly ultra-processed foods, can be quite simply delicious. Gooey pizza, gummy candies, a juicy burger — no, you’re drooling. And it turns out, there’s a reason we gravitate towards these foods: They make us feel a lot better in the short term.
When we eat, our bodies associate it with survival, and reward us by releasing dopamine in our brains, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good, according to Healthline. "The more often this cycle of craving and rewarding is repeated, the stronger it becomes and the greater the quantity of food that’s needed each time," the site explained. This can cause problems.
As a study in Neuropsychopharmacology found, a diet high in junk food — and particularly, foods higher in fat and sugar — can cause an increase in receptors in the brain that can cause addictive tendencies towards these types of foods. While eating processed foods can initially make us feel good, giving them up will make you feel better in the long run (via Health).
Only eating processed foods increases your risk of many diseases
Although the Food and Drug Administration banned trans fats, a type of unsaturated fat, by 2018, some products containing trans fats are still in circulation as of 2021 (via Healthline). And as long as a food does not contain more than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving, they do not have to be listed on the label. And unfortunately, these fats can wreak havoc on our bodies.
As a 2019 study published in Diabetology and Metabolic Syndrome found, eating excessive trans fats (which, with a recommended daily maximum of 2 grams, is not all that difficult) can present a notable increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Trans fats aren’t only in processed foods, though. As the study mentioned, due to trans fats occurring naturally in dairy and meat products, it can be difficult to eradicate them from our diets. However, what we can do is keep an eye on the trans fats we’re eating, and eliminate them whenever possible.
Processed foods will have you feeling the "burn" more often
It’s a feeling you might recognize: a burning sensation creeping into the chest, causing discomfort and pain not long after eating. Heartburn can range from a mild annoyance to deeply unpleasant, and for some people, it can last a while. And with up to 1 in 5 Americans experiencing heartburn weekly, it’s a common problem (via WebMD).
If you eat a diet high in processed foods, chances are you experience heartburn frequently. And, as WebMD explained, "If your heartburn goes on for a long time, it may be a sign of a more serious condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)." According to a study published in the Journal of Thoracic Disease, simple sugars aggravate GERD, leading to heartburn. With many processed foods favoring simple sugars (such as glucose and fructose) to deliver flavor and energy, eating more processed foods may result in more episodes of acid reflux.
The study also noted that lower fiber intake can contribute to heartburn frequency, and with many processed foods favoring refined carbohydrates that are lower in fiber, this too can contribute to that common chest discomfort after eating.
You’ll be eating way too much sugar on a processed food diet
There are a lot of reasons processed foods can be so delicious — but their high sugar content is certainly high on the list. As WebMD noted, many processed foods contain added sugar to enhance flavor. While it certainly makes those foods sweeter and provides quick energy, a diet high in sugar can cause a bevy of health problems.
According to Medical News Today, processed foods are one of the biggest sources of added sugar in our diets. So if you’re eating pretty much only processed foods, you’re likely getting way more sugar than you bargained for. Consumption of excess sugar — often in the form of high fructose corn syrup in processed foods — can contribute to health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, inflammatory diseases, and obesity. Add to that the fact that simple sugar has zero essential ingredients for the body, and it’s not a great look for many ultra-processed foods.
The salt in processed foods can raise your blood pressure
The salt in potato chips may be part of what makes them satisfying, but all that added sodium can be pretty problematic. Diets that are high in sodium can cause high blood pressure, which contributes to an increased risk of heart disease and failure, kidney disease, and stroke (via Healthline).
This is bad news for people who eat processed foods regularly. As a study in Nutrients showed, a large number of processed foods contain excess amounts of sodium, with processed meats carrying the highest concentrations. As such, eating a diet of only processed foods could push your salt intake to unhealthy levels.
While a little added salt can add some much needed flavor enhancement, make sure your daily salt intake remains within healthy limits. Less than 2,300 milligrams, or one teaspoon, per day for healthy adults is ideal, per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Excess processed food, however, can put you well over this amount.
Processed foods will cause your blood sugar to spike
Ultra-processed foods containing added sugar and simple carbohydrates don’t just taste appealing, they can also offer us a burst of energy. As Healthline highlighted, the carbohydrates we consume get converted into blood sugar, which provides energy to the body. The foods that give us the highest amount of blood sugar in the shortest amount of time (known as a "spike") are generally high in processed carbohydrates and simple sugars, such as sugary sodas and drinks, white bread, and pasta — all processed foods.
Although these foods may have you feeling energized temporarily, blood sugar spikes should be avoided due to the damage they cause to the body. Too much sugar in the blood can, over time, lead to type 2 diabetes. Furthermore, these spikes may also limit your "aerobic exercise capacity," according to Medical News Today. So next time you consider having a pre-workout sugary snack, think again — it could be detrimental.
Eating only processed foods may result in weight gain
With processed foods commonly being the recipients of added ingredients such as sugars and fats, it’s little wonder that many processed food choices can be higher in calories than their whole food counterparts. It makes sense, then, that a diet consisting of just processed foods could cause weight gain.
This was shown pretty clearly in a 2019 study published in Cell Metabolism, in which two groups of volunteers alternated between eating a diet of unprocessed foods and a diet of ultra-processed choices. The study found that during the period in which the volunteers ate the ultra-processed food diet, they consumed more calories and subsequently put on weight. During the period of eating an unprocessed diet, however, they lost weight. This was the case even though the study designed their meals to match in calories, macronutrients, and energy density — although the participants were allowed to eat as much or as little of those foods as they liked.
Your body won’t receive important nutrients if you only eat processed foods
When we eat, it’s important to think about (and try and maximize) the number of good nutrients that we’re receiving to make sure our bodies stay in tip-top shape. With a diet of just processed foods, this can be difficult to achieve. As Medical News Today explained, ultra-processed foods are bare in nutrients compared to whole foods, meaning that your meals may not pack the same nutritional punch.
Although many processed foods are fortified with extra nutrients and vitamins (breakfast cereals being a prime example of this), "whole foods provide additional healthful compounds that ultra-processed foods do not," according to Medical News Today.
Take antioxidants, for example. They help to fight free radicals in the body. This is important because free radicals can increase your risk of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease (via Healthline). Although you’ll get antioxidants from whole foods (specifically fruits and vegetables), you’ll miss out on them if you stick to a diet filled with ultra-processed foods.
Eating only processed foods puts you at risk for heart disease
The appealing taste and convenience of processed foods can come at a cost. Eating mostly processed foods can cause your cholesterol levels to rise (via SOMOS). The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada advised those trying to lower their cholesterol to "steer clear of highly processed foods, even if they are lower in fat content. Low-fat or diet foods are often loaded with calories, sodium and added sugar." If not, you could be doing some serious damage to your heart.
The link between consumption of processed foods and cardiovascular disease is well established. A study of over 100,000 people published in The British Medical Journal found an association between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and cardiovascular and coronary heart disease, as well as cerebrovascular disease (a disease that can affect the blood flow to the brain).
As the study highlighted, cardiovascular disease accounts for a third of all deaths worldwide, so protecting our heart health is vital. Through reducing your intake of ultra-processed foods and favoring whole food sources, as well as incorporating regular exercise, you can help your heart to remain in good health.
Eating processed foods could harm your mental health
It can be easy to overlook just how much diet can affect mental health. What we eat can have a direct impact on our state of mind — and it’s no different when it comes to processed food. In fact, a higher intake of processed food could prove detrimental to your mental health and put you more at risk of experiencing conditions such as depression.
As confirmed by a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, a connection has been found between diets high in processed foods and depression and depressive symptoms. Avoiding processed foods, conversely — as well as favoring food sources like fish and others that contain magnesium and folic acid — can provide benefits to mental health and help protect against depression and depressive symptoms.
Of course, mental health is affected by many factors, and it’s important to remember that diet is but one aspect. Nevertheless, reducing processed foods could help to safeguard mental health.
Processed foods can overwhelm your kidneys
The body is a complex system of interconnected organs, and our diets can affect every one of these body parts. In particular, the kidneys — which are responsible for filtering the blood – can be heavily affected by the amount of processed foods we eat. Eating food that’s high in sodium, like processed foods, make it difficult for the kidneys to keep up with sodium levels in the blood, and over time this can cause damage, according to The Nutrition Source.
Plus, processed foods often contain high amounts of sugar and other additives, which can cause more rouble for your kidneys. This was confirmed in a study led by physician Alex Chang of Johns Hopkins University. As explained by the National Kidney Foundation, it was discovered that "people with normal kidney function whose diet quality was poor — high in red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages and sodium, and low in fruit, legumes, nuts, whole grains and low-fat dairy — were more likely to develop kidney disease. Protect your kidneys; eat fewer processed foods.
Your gut health will take a hit when eating a diet full of processed foods
Gut health can be hugely impacted by what we eat — as you might assume, considering it’s the place where food is digested — and making sure we give it a little love is important. Unfortunately, a diet heavy in processed foods can cause gut problems.
In a 2019 study published in Microorganisms, researchers looked at how gut bacteria is impacted by diets, and how diet choices can affect the gut’s tendency to inflame and cause issues. The study found that Western diets — diets high in fats and simple sugars, which are common components and additions to processed foods — can negatively impact our gut bacteria, leading to gut inflammation and intestinal diseases. Diets high in fiber and rich in prebiotics (such as the Mediterranean diet), however, contribute to better gut health.
Although processed foods might be a convenient choice, we pay for that convenience, in part, with our gut health. Making sure you get a varied diet with plenty of fiber is essential.
Your liver takes on more work when you eat processed foods
The liver play a huge part in the body’s processing of food. As WebMD explained, the liver helps filter the blood and detoxify the body of chemicals. And this organ can be greatly impacted by what we eat. Diets comprised of processed foods can cause the liver to have to work harder. And with increased amounts of fats and sugars in ultra-processed diets, the strain this can put on the liver can lead to damage (via Narayana Health).
As a 2017 study published in the Iranian Journal of Public Health found, a relationship between diet and frequency of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) — a disease marked by increased fatty deposits in the liver — exists. And as the study shows, diets that are higher in processed foods are associated with higher frequencies of NAFLD.
On the other hand, nutritious diets made up of whole food sources help to support liver health — so if you want to keep your liver in good shape, a processed food diet is not the best move.
Your eyesight could suffer from processed foods
Keeping an eye on our vision (if you’ll excuse the pun) doesn’t mean getting regular check-ups at the optician. Our diets can be an important part of protecting our eye health. However, eating large amounts of processed foods can mean trouble for your eyesight in the long term. A study published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology found that Western diets, which are high in processed and other unhealthy foods, "may be a risk factor for development of late AMD [age-related macular degeneration]." This disease is the largest cause of permanent vision loss in adults 60 years old and older (via WebMD).
Prevention is the best medicine when it comes to AMD, and cutting out processed foods may be one way to safeguard your eyesight, especially as you age. Additionally, look to add healthy foods to your diets, especially ones that contain zinc, beta-carotene, copper, and vitamins C and E, as high amounts of these minerals and vitamins have helped reduce vision loss, according to WebMD.