04. Wellness

5 Major Health Problems From Eating Ultra-Processed Foods

July 21, 2023

In today's fast-paced world, ultra-processed foods have become both convenient and desirable, filling our supermarket shelves and dominating our diets. However, emerging research suggests that these increasingly prevalent and often tempting food choices may come with a hefty price tag for our health. From obesity to chronic diseases, here we will we shed light on the major health problems associated with these heavily processed culinary concoctions.

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?

Ultra-processed foods are industrially produced food products that undergo multiple levels of processing, resulting in alterations to their original form. These food items are typically characterized by their extensive ingredient lists, often containing additives, preservatives, artificial flavors, and unhealthy fats. Examples of ultra-processed foods include sugary cereals, chips, carbonated beverages, fast food meals, packaged snacks, and frozen ready-to-eat meals.

One way to think about the amount of food processing in what you eat is to compare how different a food is from to its natural raw form. For example, raw fresh onions are natural and nutritionally healthy. Boiled onions are in a processed food state, moderately reducing their nutritional value. Fried onions are ultra-processed, removing much of their nutrition, while onions rings fried in batter rank very high on the ultra-processed scale, have very low nutritional value, and are associated with significant health risks.

How Common Are Ultra-Processed Foods?

The simple answer is much more common than you think.

A new paper in Nature Communications applied a specialized form of AI called 'FoodProX', trained on analyzing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrient Database, to determine the extent of ultra-processing for a wide range of commonly purchased and cooked foods.

The overall findings showed that over 73% of the US food supply is ultra-processed. Natural berries and citrus fruits topped the rankings for nutrition, while ultra-processed foods like high-sugar cereal, doughnuts, pizzas, cakes and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches ranked lowest.

The results are now freely available to browse through a comprehensive website database called True Food.

Now, let's go over key health problems associated with ultra-processed foods.

1. Obesity and Weight Gain

Numerous studies have linked the consumption of ultra-processed foods to obesity and weight gain. These food products are often energy-dense, packed with added sugars, unhealthy fats, and refined carbohydrates. They are designed to be hyper-palatable, leading to overconsumption and a disruption of the body's natural appetite regulation mechanisms.

Regular consumption of ultra-processed foods can contribute to an excessive calorie intake, thus increasing the risk of obesity and its associated health complications.

2. Cardiovascular Diseases

Ultra-processed foods have been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. They tend to be high in unhealthy fats, trans fats, and sodium, while lacking essential nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Diets rich in ultra-processed foods have been associated with elevated blood pressure, increased levels of LDL cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol), and higher rates of heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular ailments.

3. Type 2 Diabetes

The consumption of ultra-processed foods has been identified as a significant risk factor for the development of type 2 diabetes. These foods often contain high levels of added sugars and refined carbohydrates, leading to rapid spikes in blood sugar levels.

The repeated exposure to such blood sugar fluctuations can contribute to insulin resistance over time, increasing the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes. The effects of a high sugar diet can also cause the gut microbiome to metamorphosize into a composition that sends signals to the brain to crave carbohydrates.

4. Digestive Disorders

Ultra-processed foods can wreak havoc on our digestive system. These foods are typically low in fiber, which is crucial for maintaining healthy digestion. A diet dominated by ultra-processed foods can lead to constipation, gastrointestinal discomfort, and an increased risk of developing conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or diverticulitis.

Moreover, some additives commonly found in ultra-processed foods, such as emulsifiers, have been linked to gut dysbiosis, an imbalance in the gut microbiota that can have far-reaching implications for our health.

5. Cognitive Decline

In a recent study following the diets of 11,000 middle-aged people over eight years, scientists found that those who diets were high in ultra-processed foods experienced up to 28% faster cognitive decline, compared with those whose diet was mostly natural foods.

More research is needed to determine if these effects on the brain are directly related to ultra-processed foods, or indirectly through the associated impacts on overall health. However, as we continue to live longer, for many people cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases represent one of the greatest worries over quality of life in older age.


As society becomes increasingly dependent on convenience and even calorie addiction, it's crucial to recognize the potential health consequences associated with the consumption of ultra-processed foods. The evidence linking these more artificially based diets is mounting and encompasses more risks than the five outlined here. Learning to recognize the degree of ultra-processing in our diets, minimizing consumption and making conscious choices to eat fresh foods close to their natural state, is showing to be increasingly important for maintaining health in the long run.

True Food website

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