Are Processed Foods Bad for You?

Are processed foods bad for you? It’s easy to look at foods in a binary way: healthy or unhealthy. However, it’s not that simple with processed foods. It’s true that many of the foods people think of when they think of processed foods — frozen dinners, snack cakes, and junk food — are unhealthy, but not all processed foods are bad for you.

You can't avoid processed foods, and not all processed foods are bad for you. Know how to identify what goes into the foods you buy, and how to choose healthier options over highly processed foods. Click To Tweet

What are processed foods?

People define “processed foods” in different ways. This is part of what makes it difficult to talk about processed foods. Some define processed foods as food that has been packaged or changed in any way. Others mean microwave dinners, ready-made meals, and fast food when talking about processed foods.

According to The International Food Information Council, “any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it is ready for us to eat” is considered food processing.

This means pretty much all food you buy at the grocery store has been processed. Freezing, baking, curing, cooking, canning, drying, dehydrating, refining, and adding chemicals or ingredients for flavoring, preservation, texture or appearance are all ways to process foods.

Some foods are processed more than others, and some processed foods are healthier or more nutritious than others. A bag of dry lentils, a can of pinto beans, and a box of frozen black bean burgers are all processed.

Minimally processed foods and highly processed foods

There’s a spectrum for processing foods. The two extremes are minimally processed foods and highly processed foods, or ultraprocessed foods.

Minimally processed foods include whole foods and raw foods such as fruits, vegetables, cut oats, raw nuts, and raw meats.

Highly processed, or ultraprocessed, foods include frozen dinners, chips, and convenience foods, but also many other foods you might not consider unhealthy. Breakfast cereals, bagels, cold cuts, white bread, shredded cheese, and ketchup are all highly processed.

The problem with highly processed, or ultraprocessed, foods

Generally speaking, highly processed foods are less healthy than minimally processed foods.

One problem with highly processed foods is that they tend to be high in refined sugars, fats, salt, and calories. They also tend to have less fiber, vitamins, and nutrients than minimally processed foods.

Ultraprocessed foods are often made from extracted food substances or derived from food constituents rather than actual food. Many of these foods rely on emulsifiers, dyes, hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, flavoring agents, preservatives, and artificial ingredients added for color, flavor, texture, and appearance.

These foods are cheap, convenient, and they trigger pleasure sensors in the brain. This makes it easier for people to choose these foods over healthier, less processed options.

What does the research say about processed foods?

A study from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive Kidney Diseases examined the effects of a highly processed diet and a minimally processed diet on the body. They observed changes in body weight and calorie consumption for 10 men and 10 women over the course of 28 days.

The participants ate a diet of ultraprocessed foods for two weeks, and diet of minimally processed foods for two weeks. The meals had the same number of calories, sugars, fiber, fat, and carbohydrate. Participants in the study could eat as much or as little as they wanted.

People tended to consume more calories, consume food faster, and gain more weight while eating highly processed foods than when eating a diet of minimally processed foods.

Choosing healthy foods

Processed foods aren’t inherently bad for you. Highly processed foods can be, however. Here are some tips to help you make healthy decisions int the grocery store.

  • Learn to read nutrition labels.
  • Packaging can be misleading. Words like “natural” and “organic” don’t indicate how healthy or processed a food may be.
  • Check the ingredient list. Shorter lists with fewer ingredients, and ingredients you recognize, tend to be better options.
  • Cook meals using raw ingredients and whole foods rather than ready made foods.
  • A shorter shelf life typically means fewer preservatives and artificial ingredients.

Making healthier choices at the dinner table is an easy way to improve your health. Transitioning to a diet of healthy foods may be difficult if you’re used to a diet of highly processed foods, however. Radical changes in your diet can cause digestive problems.

If digestive problems persist, you should talk to your doctor. Your primary care doctor can help you address the issue, and refer you to a GI specialist if necessary.