The Ugly Truth About Overly Processed Foods

Medically reviewed by Mary Ahern MS, RDN, RYT March 11, 2024| Written by Shahid Bashir

The Ugly Truth About Overly Processed Foods

Overly processed food is a category that contains food items modified from their natural form. In the modification phase, the food undergoes extensive processing, often involving the addition of artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, and other additives. 

Statistics show that over 50% of calories people consume in high-income countries come from overly processed foods. Generally, over or ultra-processed food is harmful to the human body, but this doesn’t apply to all processed foods.

For example, fortifying salt with iron and adding vitamins and minerals to processed white bread. Similarly, milk and yogurt undergo processing for the removal of extra fat and the addition of vitamins like vitamin D. These and several other food processes don’t make them unhealthy to consume; in fact, they help us with essential nutrients. 

So, what is actually wrong with overly processed foods?

Well, there are only a few examples of the benefits of food processing. After all, most processed foods contain high amounts of saturated fats, sugar, salt, and several other harmful ingredients.Processing can also decrease the vitamins and minerals that are naturally found in the food. 

This kind of processing makes the food high in calories but low in nutritional count. Unhealthy processed food includes sugary bakery items, fast food, carbonated drinks, instant snacks, processed meat, etc.

To better understand the concept of overly processed foods, it’s a good idea to understand how these foods are categorized: 

NOVA Classification for Food Groups

Researchers from Sao Paulo University, Brazil, classified food items intofour major groups depending on their degree of processing:

  • Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods:This category has two types of food items. Unprocessed means food items with little to no alterations. These include edible parts of the plants, such as fruits, vegetables, leaves, and seeds. This also includes animal products like milk and eggs. 

Minimally processed foods are those that undergo modifications to extend the life of unprocessed foods. This includes drying, crushing, boiling, pasteurization, freezing, and vacuum packing.

  • Processed Culinary Ingredients: Processed Culinary ingredients are either direct products from first-group items or extracted from nature. The items in this group include salt, vegetable oils, honey, butter, etc.

The items in this group serve as an ingredient for preparing, cooking, and seasoning first-group food items. For example, salts from seawater and vegetable oils from seeds are ingredients in cooking.

  • Processed Foods: We use processed culinary ingredients in unprocessed food to enhance the taste and experience. In this way, the end product we get is a processed food according to NOVA classification. 
  • Some common examples of processed foods are canned fruits and vegetables, homemade bread, cheese, bacon, and salted nuts.

  • Overly Processed Food: Overly processed food refers to products undergoing extensive processing, created through a series of industrial processes. Some often involve adding artificial ingredients, preservatives, flavorings, and other additives. 
  • These foods typically contain little nutritional value and are high in unhealthy fats, sugars, sodium, and calories. Examples of overly processed food are packaged breads, processed snacks, carbonated drinks, chocolates, fast food items, etc.

    NOVA classification helps in differentiating healthy and unhealthy foods based on their ingredients. The classification highlights the harmful ingredients of overly processed food and signals the health risks linked to them.

    Health Risks of Processed Foods

    Processed foods may contain ingredients that you wouldn’t usually use in your kitchen. The ingredients, along with the excessive preparation methods of processed foods, are associated with major health risks. 

    According to a cohortstudy consuming more than four daily servings of overly processed food increases the all-cause mortality rate by 62%. The rate increased further by 18% for each additional serving.

    So, consuming overly processed foods can lead to many health problems including

    1. Cardiovascular Problems

    Overly processed foods are high in unhealthy (saturated or trans) fats, and sodium, which increases our risk for cardiovascular disease. 

    Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) is known as the “bad” cholesterol, and recommendations are to keep this number low. LDL cholesterol can enter the arteries and accumulate there. The blockage of arteries can lead to heart attack or myocardial infarction, and several other complications.

    Asystematic review shows that an increase in 1g of dietary sodium increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases by 6%. Sodium increases blood pressure, which over time translates to heart problems.

    Framingham Offspring's study shows a 7% increase in the incidence of cardiovascular diseases associated with each increase in daily servings of overly processed foods from the average daily of 7.5 servings. Another cohort study findings indicate that those consuming overly processed food have a12% increased risk of developing cardiovascular problems in the highest processed food consuming group when compared to the lowest. 

    2. Obesity

    Obesity results from consuming more calories than the body demands, over a long period. The body stores the additional energy in the form of fat deposition, leading to obesity. 

    Ultra-processed foods are typically high in calories due to the abundance of fats and added sugar. In astudy on Brazilian adolescents and adults, researchers analyzed the effects of consumption of ultra-processed food on body weight. The results reflected comparatively higher body mass index (BMI) and excess weight from high consumption of overly processed food. 

    The National Institute of Health conducted interesting research to evaluate therelationship between ultra-processed food and weight gain. They divided the participants into two groups, one consuming ultra-processed foods, and the other consuming minimally processed food for 28 days. The results of this study show that people on an overly processed diet consumed 500 calories more per day than the other group. 

    See Article:Dietitian-backed tips to lose weight fast 

    This research also shows an increased weight of two pounds on average among people consuming the processed food diet. Interestingly, they also observed weight loss in people on a minimally processed food diet. 

    Obesity isn’t a disease itself, but it makes the body more prone to several diseases. Diabetes, heart problems, high blood pressure, stroke, metabolic disorders, and breathing problems are some of thecomplications linked to obesity

    3. Type 2 Diabetes

    In an optimally functioning body, excess glucose is transported to the liver and adipose tissue for later use. 

    However, in the case of obesity, the cells become resistant to glucose uptake. 

    As mentioned above, consuming overly processed foods results inweight gain and so, it also increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes. Research has established alinear relationship between increased body mass index and type 2 diabetes. 

    AFrench cohort study of over 100,000 adults reported that a 10% increase in ultra-processed food in diet increases the risk of type 2 diabetes by 13%. A similarstudy in 2022 found that a 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption led to a 25% rise in the incidence of type 2 diabetes.

    It is worth noting, that diets high in ultra-processed foods are typically low in nutrient-dense foods. Therefore, the relationship between ultra-processed diets and diseases such as diabetes may also have something to do with a low intake of nutrient-dense foods such as fruits and vegetables.  A balanced diet is not just cutting down on processed foods but also eating a moderate & nutritious diet.

    See also:How to reduce the risk of Type 2 Diabetes

    4. Digestive Problems

    Your diet is the most essential pillar in defining digestive health. Overly processed foods are high in refined carbohydrates, salts, and additives but low infiber - which is a risk togut health

    The digestive system contains countlessgood microbiota that help optimize digestion and produce important nutrients and vitamins.Short-chain fatty acids are an excellent example of byproducts from gut microbiota. 

    Astudy by Food Research International suggests that sweeteners and some emulsifiers in processed foods facilitate intestinal inflammation. It also concluded that sweeteners in processed foods, such as saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame, may have a link to the onset ofinflammatory bowel disease.

    Fiber has prebiotic properties and helps in the composition of several good gut microbiota species. Meanwhile, research shows the adverse effects of overly processed food additives on the gut microbiota. 

    Low-fiber diets (like a high ultra-processed diet)  can also lead to constipation and bloating.Fiber plays its role bysoftening the stool and making bowel movements easy. 

    Fiber is so crucial for the gut’s functioning that dietitians recommend a daily dosage of about 25g for women and 38 for men. One can fulfill this need through a natural diet or supplementaryfiber powders

    5. Increased Risk of Cancer

    Food processing involves adding artificial sweeteners, preservatives, emulsifiers, and other additives. This practice is standard on an industrial scale to enhance the taste, reduce production costs, and increase shelf life. 

    Imperial’s School of Public Health performed extensive research to evaluate the link between consuming overly processed food and the incidence of cancer. The researchers found a direct relationship between consuming overly processed food and developing cancer. The proportion of ovarian and brain cancers is the highest overall.

    The same research also concluded that a 10% increase in overly processed food in diet increases the overall cancer risk by 2%. 

    Astudy in Europe on cancer risk suggests that replacing overly processed food with minimally processed food lowers the risk of all types of cancers. 

    That said, cutting out ultra-processed foods is not the only way to reduce your risk of developing cancer. Check out our guide forCancer Diet - foods to eat and avoid

    6. Nutrient Deficiency

    In its natural form, a whole food contains various nutrients and minerals. However, not all nutrients and minerals are retained when food undergoes several processing phases. 

    Specific vitamins and minerals are sensitive to food processing methods such as refining, grinding, heating, or drying.

     Also, on an industrial scale, particular processes are carried out to enhance the sensory appeal of the end product with a compromise on nutritional value. For example, refining grains involves removing nutrient-rich bran and germ layers. The end product received is a starch with minimum nutrients left. 

    Another such example is the removal of skin from fruits and vegetables. Fruit and vegetable skins contain fiber and vitamins essential for the human body.

    Research also supports the argument that nutritional deficiency is correlated to the intake of overly processed foods.Increases in overly processed food intake can lead to a decrease in fiber, protein, potassium, zinc, and vitamins, including A, C, D, E, and B12. 

    7. Liver Damage

    Your body requires a certain amount of good fats to function optimally. You can get those good fats from vegetable oils, seeds, nuts, and fish. 

    But, overly processed foods mostly lack good fats and are high in saturated fats, also called bad fats. With excessive consumption of saturated fat, these fats can accumulate in the liver and can cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. 

    There are several studies to evaluate the damage to the liver by ultra-processed food. One authentic and trustedstudy found that consuming high amounts of ultra-processed food is associated withnon-alcoholic fatty liver disease,liver fibrosis, andcirrhosis

    8. Poor Mental Health

    The exact phenomenon of how overly processed food causes harm to mental health is not clear. However, there are several hypotheses under study to evaluate the mechanism. 

    One hypothesis about the relationship between poor mental health and overly processed food is nutrient deficiency. A nutrient-dense diet sourced from whole foods may contribute to better mental health among people who do not overly consume processed food.

    Besides the exact phenomenon, it is evident from scientific data that intake of overly processed food has adverse effects on mental health. Across-sectional study in 2022 concluded that individuals at the highest level of ultra-processed food consumption were more likely to report mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and overall poor mental health. 

    Another investigation shows an association between consuming ultra-processed food and cognitive decline. Cognitive decline, commonly linked with aging, rises by 28% in those consuming more than 20% of daily calories from ultra-processed foods.

    9. Poor Dental Health

    Overly processed foods are high in sugar and acid content, which is a risk to dental health. Sugar feeds the bacteria in the mouth and facilitates tooth decay and cavities formation. The high acid content in soft drinks, energy drinks, and artificially flavored juices also gradually weakens tooth enamel. 

    Thescientific research data shows that increased uptake of overly-processed food increases the risk of having dental caries in adolescence. Overly processed meat, fast food, and instant noodles are major contributing foods to the development of caries. 

    Why are Processed Foods Hard to Give Up?

    Even after knowing the harmful effects of processed foods on health, people find it challenging to give up on them. Several factors contribute to this addiction:

    1. Overly processed foods are mostly available in a ready-to-eat form which makes it convenient to find and consume them. 
    2. Overly processed foods are designed so they’re not just convenient to obtain but also digest with minimal work. That means the body digests them quickly and experiences a glucose boost soon after consuming a meal.
    3. Overly processed foods contain refined carbohydrates and fats that trigger the reward center in the brain. This and the effects of artificial flavorings add joy to having an overly processed meal - making it hard to give up.

    For all these reasons, it will be hard to go cold turkey on processed foods. However, gradually orienting towards a plant-based diet will ease the process of giving up these ultra-processed foods. 

    It may also be helpful to know the benefits of avoiding processed food. 

    What are the Benefits of Avoiding Processed Food?

    Your body requires fuel in the form of nutrients to grow, develop, and function. When you make ultra-processed foods a significant part of your diet, your body can be deprived of several essential nutrients. 

    So, if you can avoid giving your body an excess supply of fats, sugar, and ultra-processed ingredients, then you will get tremendous health benefits. These include:

    • Avoiding processed food and replacing it with whole foodfulfills the body’s nutrient requirements. Many essential nutrients in whole foods aren’t available or in low quantities in overly processed foods. 
    • Overly processed foods are high in calories and low infiber, potentially causing weight gain. Avoiding such food may result in significantweight loss and can prevent you from complications of being overweight.
    • A shift from ultra-processed foods towards healthier foodsreduces the risk of developing cardiovascular problems. It is because of the reduced amount of saturated fats and salt in the diet. 
    • Avoiding processed foods that are low in fiberimprovesdigestive health. A shift towards a high-fiber diet facilitates good gut microbiota because of prebiotic properties.
    • Optimal physical health translates tobetter mental health and positive mood. By avoiding processed foods, you may experience a better mood and positive mental health outcomes.
    • Weight reduction from avoiding processed foodsbenefits in performing physical activities more often. A high amount of proteins in whole foods promotes muscle growth, benefiting physical activities.

    Avoiding processed foods and planning a good diet will benefit all aspects of your life. 

    If you want your body to function optimally and reduce the risks of diseases, a healthy diet is the first step. 

    How Does Fiber Help Avoid Processed Food?

    The major disadvantage of overly processed food is that it doesn’t satisfy your cravings within the recommended calorie limit. These foods are high in calories but can be digested easily. Thus, overly processed foods don’t stay in your stomach long, and you crave to consume more.

    Adding fiber to your diet, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts, willslow down digestion. These fiber foods stay in your stomach longer, and you feel full and satisfied with your meal. It helps you stop consuming food more frequently and reduces your dependency on processed snacks to meet your cravings. 

    Increasing fiber in your diet gradually lowers the proportion of overly processed food you consume. Along with helping you avoid overly processed foods, fiber also corrects the disadvantages of overly processed food. 

    Fiber improves digestive health, facilitates the growth of good gut microbiota, helps in weight loss, and improves overall health. 


    Overly processed foods are modified forms of whole food with added sugar, emulsifiers, preservatives, and several other ingredients. The food items in this category are high in calories but low in nutritional value. 

    Scientific data suggests that overly processed food is a major health risk including cardiovascular problems, poor digestive health, obesity, increased risk of cancer, and type 2 diabetes. And yetmore than 50% of our daily calorie consumption comes from overly processed foods.

    Most people struggle to give up on overly processed foods. But a gradual orientation towards a healthy diet, especially one rich in fiber will satiate you and will help you cut down on overly processed foods.