Ultra-processed Foods and Your Health

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Are your food choices and/or meals driven by convenience?

I get it.

Having lived in New York City my entire adult life, I understand how easy it is NOT to cook in a city with thousands upon thousands of restaurants, eateries, food carts, etc.—especially after a long day at work or if you plan on working into the night.

You want food that is tasty, comforting and quick.

For years, my husband and I ate just this way. We loved the convenience of eating anytime, anywhere. Because of our schedules, we often ate dinner out at local neighborhood restaurants up to 5x / week (sometimes more). Occasionally, we ordered takeout. After the 2008 financial crash, however, we decided to prioritize preparing and eating home-cooked meals.

It made a huge (positive) difference. And not just financially. Once we began eating more whole foods-based, home-cooked meals, we noticed that the bodily reactions we had assumed were “normal” after eating out—for example, digestive distress, especially bloating; blood sugar crashes; brain fog; fatigue; and lethargy—disappeared. Over time, our idea of “tasty, comforting and quick” has evolved to mean easy-to-make home-cooked meals.

Click here to read about the Benefits of Eating Whole Foods.

During and after COVID, when working-from-home became the norm, I assumed that more people would be motivated to cook at home.

I was wrong. Very wrong.

Instead, more people than ever consume ultra-processed foods and/or other convenience-based foods. Since COVID, online ordering platforms, like Uber Eats, Door Dash and GrubHub, have also flourished (1). People are also eating out again.


What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?

 In a commentary published in the American Journal of Medicine, physicians from Florida Atlantic University’s Schmidt College of Medicine deemed ultra-processed foods the new ‘silent’ killer as these engineered foods have been implicated in many chronic health conditions.

“Hundreds of novel ingredients never encountered by human physiology are now found in nearly 60 percent of the average adult’s diet and nearly 70 percent of children’s diets in the U.S.” (2) 

Ultra-processed foods take “processed foods” to the next level.

Processed foods typically alter whole foods with “processed ingredients”, such as sugar, fat, oil and/or salt, to preserve whole foods. For example, “processed foods” include cheese, canned beans, jams, pickles, canned fruit and cultured vegetables. Processed foods are altered in a way that you could potentially replicate in your own home kitchen. For example, I have made and canned my own applesauce.

On the other hand…

Ultra-processed foods are industrially manufactured, ready-to-eat “formulations” that are made mostly from substances extracted from whole foods, including sugars, oils and fats, proteins, starches and fiber (3, 4).

These substances are obtained from high-yield plant foods like corn, wheat, soy or beets—crops also known to be GMO (genetically modified organisms). Substances in ultra-processed foods are also obtained from pureeing or grinding animal carcasses, usually from intensive livestock farming. (Think factory farming. You can bet your bottom dollar that humanely raised, grass-fed, grass-finished livestock is not being used!) (5).

Some of these substances undergo further chemical modifications, like hydrolysis or hydrogenation. Then…unmodified and modified food substances are assembled—with little if any whole food—using industrial techniques, like extrusion, molding and pre-frying. Artificial colors, flavors, emulsifiers and other additives are added to make the final product hyper-palatable (6). Mmmmm!

The final product is served up in a pretty package. And that packaging is usually made with synthetic materials (7).


What foods are considered “ultra-processed”?

Essentially any “instant”, ready-to-heat, or ready-to-eat foods. These “foods” are highly manipulated to be hyper-palatable and to have a long shelf-life. Examples include (8):

–Instant canned soups
–Ready-made sauces, gravies, dressings
–French fries
–Instant or pre-made potato products
–Dry-mix desserts
–Snack foods: sweet and savory
–Granola bars
–Protein bars
–Sweetened beverages
–Fruit drinks
–Presweetened tea and coffee
–Energy drinks
–Dairy-based drinks<
–Flavored and/or sweetened yogurt
–“Meatless” patties or veggie burgers
–Dry cake and pancake mixes<
–Store-bought breads or bread products
–Most breakfast cereals
–Frozen treats: ice cream, frozen yogurt, etc.

Restaurants, whether it’s a local eatery, chain restaurant, fast food or fast casual, are also a source of ultra-processed foods. For example, food is often sauteed or fried with highly inflammatory seed oils and ultra-processed foods / substances may be incorporated in sauces, dressings, condiments or a “meatless” menu item.

“To go” restaurant packaging, whether it’s Arby’s, Chick-fil-A or Sweetgreen’s, is also a source of “forever chemicals”, like PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, man-made chemicals that have been linked with increased risk of cancer, liver damage, obesity, fertility issues and neurological effects, among other health problems associated with exposure (9).


An Inconvenient Truth

When it comes to our food choices, we are a culture that tends to crave comfort. Usually, this means that we let someone else do the “cooking”, whether it’s a multinational corporation (e.g., Nestle owns Lean Cuisine and Stouffer’s frozen meals; ConAgra owns Gardein, which makes “plant-based, meatless food items”), restaurants, chain eateries, fast food joints or our favorite online ordering app.

An “easy” meal may hit the spot in the moment, but, ultimately, we pay the price for this “convenience” in terms of our health. All ultra-processed foods, as well as any meal that you eat out or order in, typically contains various elements of the following:

–Added sugars
–Excess sodium
–Unhealthy fats
–Refined carbohydrates
–Artificial additives
–Artificial coloring
–Toxic seed oils: Canola, peanut, soybean, cottonseed, corn, sunflower, safflower, grapeseed; be wary of any oil labeled “vegetable oil”.

A study published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that the consumption of ultra-processed foods has increased over the last 20 years across all demographic segments—regardless of income. The average American diet has shifted towards more ultra-processed foods.


What the research shows…

–Higher consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with heart disease and deemed a “key driver” of the US obesity epidemic (10).

–Higher consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with higher cancer risk and cancer deaths in those without a history of cancer (11).

–In a newly published study, researchers found that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods among participants, who were diagnosed with cancer (and had a history of cancer), was associated with higher risk of death (12).

–Higher consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked with adverse effects on gut health, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and colorectal cancer (13).

–Increased ultra-processed food consumption is associated with nutrient deficiencies, including significantly reduced vitamin, mineral and fiber intake vs. higher intake of sugars and unhealthy fats (14).

–Greater consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with increased depression and anxiety (15).


What You Can Do

As a functional health coach, I believe the body has an amazing capacity to heal and to regenerate. In fact, I have seen this time and again with many of my clients.

What you can do to support your body:

1. Choose whole foods. You can take one small step at a time towards making better food choices. Mindfulness is key. Pay attention: what whole, unprocessed food choices are you making right now? None? Once a day or once a week? Seasonal produce is abundant right now, and it is a perfect time, for example, to be mindful of eating more fresh vegetables.

Click here to read about the Benefits of Eating Seasonal Whole Foods with tips on how you can start.

2,  Reduce inflammation. Do a whole foods-based cleanse. My DIY 7-day cleanse is now on sale for $17 through Sunday, June 30, 2024 and features 50+ anti-inflammatory recipes.

3.  Consider curcumin. Curcumin, the most active ingredient in turmeric, has powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. It can help potentially lower inflammation. If you are trying to eat more whole foods, curcumin can help support the liver, GI tract, cholesterol metabolism and blood sugar. I like this brand because it is well absorbed.

4. Get support. Feeling overwhelmed or confused about how to start making better food choices? Click here to schedule a FREE 15-minute Discovery phone consultation with me to see how I can best support you.






1  Touch Bistro. The State of Restaurants in 2024.

2    Science Daily. “Could Ultra-processed foods be the new ‘silent’ killer? Florida Atlantic University. Feb. 20, 2024.

3, 8, 10  Juul, F. et al. “Ultra-processed food consumption among US adults from 2001 to 2018”. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Vol. 115, Issue 1, pp. 211-221. Jan 2022.

4, 5, 6, 7 Monteiro CA, Cannon G, Levy RB, Moubarac JC, Louzada ML, Rauber F, Khandpur N, Cediel G, Neri D, Martinez-Steele E, Baraldi LG, Jaime PC. Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them. Public Health Nutr. 2019 Apr;22(5):936-941.

9  Kevin Loria. “Dangerous PFAS Chemicals Are in Your Food Packaging.” Consumer Reports. March 24, 2022.

11, 12  Zhoo Y, Wang Q, Chen W, Li J, Song X, Ni Y, Zhui S, Zhang Z, Nie S, Lui L. Associations of ultra-processed food consumption with mortality among participants with a history of cancer: a prospective cohort analysis. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. June 26, 2024.

13  Whelan K, Bancil AS, Lindsay JO, Chassaing B. Ultra-processed foods and food additives in gut health and disease. Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2024 Jun;21(6):406-427.

14  Martini D, Godos J, Bonaccio M, Vitaglione P, Grosso G. Ultra-Processed Foods and Nutritional Dietary Profile: A Meta-Analysis of Nationally Representative Samples. Nutrients. 2021 Sep 27;13(10):3390.

15  Lane MM, Gamage E, Travica N, Dissanayaka T, Ashtree DN, Gauci S, Lotfaliany M, O’Neil A, Jacka FN, Marx W. Ultra-Processed Food Consumption and Mental Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies. Nutrients. 2022 Jun 21;14(13):2568.

Hi, I’m Kathryn Matthews. As a Board Certified Functional Health Coach, I help clients reclaim their energy, vitality and well-being. I want you to feel empowered about taking charge of YOUR health! To learn more, see About Kathryn.

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