How processed foods can affect your health

The average American diet consists largely of processed foods—an estimated 70 percent! And it’s no wonder, in our fast-paced culture we look for...

Health & Wellness
 Min read
February 3, 2023

The average American diet consists largely of processed foods—an estimated 70 percent! And it’s no wonder, in our fast-paced culture we look for speed and convenience in our food.

However, these cheap, quick foods come with hidden costs to your health.

What are processed foods?

Processed foods refer to any foods that have undergone some alteration from their natural state. Nearly all food found in your average grocery store has undergone some degree of processing, but not all processed foods are created equal.

Minimally processed foods such as washed blueberries, washed and bagged spinach, roasted nuts, or eggs are simply prepped for convenience or to lock in freshness while still maintaining their nutritional quality. Ideally, this level of processed foods should make up the bulk of your diet unless you have access to locally sourced foods.

Processed foods then refer to packaged foods that have added sugar, salt, oil and/or preservatives. While these food have been altered, they aren’t as detrimental to your health (especially when eaten in moderation).

Ultra-processed foods however are heavily manipulated–going through multiple processes and often containing many added ingredients like sugar, artificial ingredients, refined carbohydrates, and trans fats.

Research has found that consumption of ultra-processed food in the United States has increased over the past two decades.1 These foods pose more serious risks to your health.

Health Risks of Ultra-Processed Foods

Both the added ingredients and the packaging (often BPA plastics) can wreak havoc on your body.

Increases Risk for Obesity, High Blood Pressure, and Type 2 Diabetes

Because our body digests processed foods more quickly than whole food/minimally processed foods, our bodies burn less energy/calories digesting them despite ultra-processed foods being more calorie dense, making it easier to gain (and keep on) extra weight.

Obesity increases the risk of developing other health problems including diabetes and high blood pressure.


Many additives in ultra processed foods cause inflammation in the gut and brain, which can affect your brain function and mental health. Studies have found that high-fructose corn syrup, seed oils, added sugar, artificial sweeteners common in processed foods increase fatigue, anxiety, and depression.2

Inflammation can also aggravate PCOS and endometriosis.

Increases Risk for Cancer

Research shows that ultra-processed food intake,  was associated with higher overall cancer risk–and in particular breast cancer and colorectal cancer.3 The preservatives processed meats like lunch meat, sausage, and hot dogs contribute highly to developing cancer.

Increases Risk for Heart Disease

Researchers examined the role ultra-processed foods play in cardiovascular disease, finding that each daily serving of ultra-processed food was associated with an increase in the risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.4


Heavy processing eliminates the nutritional value in your food, so many companies “fortify” their processed foods products with vitamins, fiber, and minerals. While these fortification processes help, so many nutrients necessary for optimal health are lost.

The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend diverse and nutritionally dense foods to ensure optimal nutrient intake.

Tips to Reduce Your Consumption of Processed Foods

Stick (mainly) to whole foods

Avoid foods that have a long list of ingredients (especially if they are difficult to pronounce). Whole foods should make up the majority of your diet.

Eat mostly local foods  

Eating local foods in season is part of being a good steward of the earth.  Reasons for choosing locally grown food include: having better control over what is in the food that you eat, reducing the environmental damage caused by food transportation, reducing the incidence of foodborne illness, supporting local farmers, and no processing. Think farm to table!

Shop the Outside Aisles

The center aisles in the grocery store usually contain the processed and ultra-processed foods. Shopping in the other parts of the store can help ensure you bring home only foods that will be good for your health.

Cook more often

Cooking your own food instead of eating out or buying frozen meals helps you control the ingredients you're consuming. Meal prep can help make cooking more manageable!


While regular exercise can’t make up for a poor diet, physical activity can reduce your tendency to eat unhealthy and heavily processed foods. So get moving!


Pietra Fitness