Why Should We Avoid Ultra-Processed Foods? Risks & Consequences

Heather Campbell
 min read

Consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to an increased risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome, cancer, depression, and other conditions.

Why Should We Avoid Ultra-Processed Foods? Risks and ConsequencesIt also increases the chances of dying early.

As a general rule, processed foods are full of added sugars, colorings, preservatives, and binders. They are high in trans fats and processed carbohydrates, contain very few nutrients, and are extremely addictive. Processed foods can also affect insulin metabolism.

Below you can read more about the negative health effects of processed food and discover why you might consider changing your eating habits to eat real, pure, and fresh unprocessed food.

Ultra-processed foods: Introduction

With their added sugars, colorings, preservatives, and binders, processed foods are particularly bad for our health.

How dangerous they are has already been demonstrated countless times by large-scale scientific publications that have studied and examined millions of people in totality.

This type of industrial food has particularly deadly consequences. A ready-made meal, for example, is more dangerous than you might think.

Important research results

A team of Australian researchers decided to list the available research on the effects of ultra-processed food (Ultra-processed food and chronic noncommunicable diseases: A systematic review and meta-analysis of 43 observational studies, Lane, Davis et al., 2020).

In total, they pulled together 43 studies that met their stringent research requirements. The analysis of the combined results exposed the ill effects of industrial food.

What is ultra-processed food?

Ultra-processed food is food in which 5 or more nutrients have been combined and in which the ingredients can hardly be found in their original form.

Usually, such foods contain colorings and flavorings such as sugars, binders, and preservatives.

Consider packaged and long-life foods such as hamburgers, frozen pizzas and other junk food, cookies, granola bars, cakes, sodas, salty snacks, and instant pudding.


The 43 studies, among a total of nearly 900,000 research participants in 9 countries, compared people who ate a lot and a little of ultra-processed food.

With the consumption of ultra-processed foods, the risk of obesity increases by as much as 51%.

And the risk of metabolic syndrome (81%), shortness of breath (40%), depression (22%), and mortality in general (28%) also goes up substantially as a result of eating a lot of processed foods.

Intestinal problems, cardiovascular disease, and various cancers, including breast cancer, are also more common among food consumers of ultra-processed foods.

Frailty in the elderly

One of the studies focused very specifically on frailty in the elderly.

That particular study concluded that older people who consume more processed foods are substantially more fragile.

This means they suffer more from slackness, exhaustion, inactivity, sluggishness, and/or weight loss.

Tip: There are specific exercises for the elderly to boost their physical immunity, such as vibration therapy for fall prevention and outdoor activities for the elderly.

Processed foods can affect insulin metabolism. For example, insulin resistance plays a role in most chronic non-infectious diseases like cancer, type II diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Americans and Brits consume huge amounts of processed food

Another striking fact from the study is the massive difference in eating patterns between the various countries that were part of the study.

For example, in the United States, about 56% of total calorie intake consists of ultra-processed foods.

And in the UK, calorie intake from ultra-processed foods is 54% of total calorie intake.

This is a much higher intake of processed foods than, for example, the Spanish (23%) and French (32%).

Other explanations

One important caveat to the study should be noted. It concerns the possible role of other explanations.

People who eat processed foods may also be unhealthier due to something else, such as lower socioeconomic status.

Perhaps less affluent people are more likely to choose cheap convenience foods, but their poorer health has to do with other factors as well.

For example, previous research shows that just being aware of one’s lower status harms health.

Six reasons not to eat processed foods

Most people, somewhere, know that processed foods are unhealthy.

But just to reiterate how bad processed foods are, I’ve listed 6 facts about processed foods below:

Processed foods are high in trans fats and processed vegetable oil

Synthetic trans fatty acids are commonly found in foods containing hydrogenated vegetable oil, such as potato chips, crackers, and most baked and fried products.

Synthetic trans fatty acids promote inflammation, which creates a basis for most chronic diseases.

RelatedGoing from Infectious Diseases to Chronic Diseases: An Evolutionary Perspective

Processed foods are addictive

This is a real phenomenon supported by science.

These processed foods stimulate dopamine, a true feel-good neurotransmitter.

So you feel good despite not getting any nutrients or fiber.

This artificial dopamine stimulation can lead to excessive cravings for food and eventually lead to an addiction to eating.

Processed foods contain very few nutrients

Processing of foods usually causes the real nutrition to be lost immediately.

Sometimes synthetic vitamins and minerals are put back in.

These synthetic substances cannot fool your body and can never mimic the synergistic effects of natural foods.

Processed foods are made to make you overeat

Food manufacturers have created synthetic flavorings that activate receptors in your brain to evoke a feeling of reward that makes you barely experience the feeling of satiety.

You know how it is. If you taste one potato chip, chances are you’ll eat one more and then one more until you finally eat the whole bag. 🤯

Processed foods are usually high in processed carbohydrates

Processed carbohydrates such as pizza, cereal, bread, bagels, and waffles break down quickly in your body.

This causes your insulin levels in your body to increase each time. Instead of maintaining stable blood sugar levels, this causes your blood sugar to skyrocket!

The result? A few hours later, you’re hungry again. 🕑

This leads to a craving for carbohydrates, which is called the blood sugar roller coaster responsible for almost all chronic diseases.

Processed foods contain a lot of sugar and/or fructose (syrup)

The second most common ingredient in spaghetti sauce, for example, is sugar (after tomatoes). 🍝

Ultra-processed foods: Conclusion

Eating real food and stop eating junk food is the secret to better health. In other words, the solution to improving your health is as simple as switching from processed foods to real, unprocessed foods.

If we start replacing traditional food products like butter, grass-fed meat, and vegetables with processed foods, we will get fat and sick.

The food industry is under fire from a growing number of conscious consumers. The industry is trying from all sides to boost its negative image. Still, the group of critical consumers is steadily growing (which is good for public health).

In fact, with every dollar you spend, you’re spending a vote in practice.

Do you vote for processed, nutritionless filler, or do you vote for whole heart-healthy foods that enable your body to keep itself healthy and fit? The choice is yours, so make it consciously and thoughtfully.

In any case, processed foods should clearly be avoided as much as possible.

With such severe health consequences, it may well become the new smoking. It may even be time for a (deterrent) warning on the packaging. ⚠

Tip: Apart from watching what we eat, we must also ensure we are physically active throughout the day: What Are the Benefits of Exercise and Developing a Healthy Active Way of Life?

About Heather Campbell

As a nutritionist, my field of specialization is science-based nutritional advice but more importantly, it is my goal to share capturing and inspiring stories, examples and solutions which can help plus-size individuals overcome their specific difficulties. Read More