Are processed foods bad for you?

The single best thing that Americans can do for their diet is to limit or eliminate processed foods.

Curious why? Keep reading. Looking for tips or help on how to eat less processed foods, come back for the next blog post.

What are processed foods?

Before we get into this, it’s important to define processed foods. Generally what is meant when people refer to processed foods are actually ultra-processed foods, also known as “hyper-palatable foods”. Processing food is changing the state it is found in nature. So slicing an apple or cooking a steak are considered processing food. That’s not what people are talking about when they say processed food. They are talking about the food-like substances that have been engineered to be as tasty as possible. Things like Cheetos, fruit snacks, granola bars, and cheese-its.

These food-like substances have had complete teams of food scientists work at making them so tasty (palatable) to make your body want to eat more. Qualities like how crunchy, sweet, salty, or fatty something is, all make you want to eat more. When we talk about processed foods, these are the kinds of foods that we’re talking about. Engineered, highly palatable foods.

Why processed foods are bad – or at least not as good as real food

Inherently we know what is junk food and what isn’t. Why is that? Part of it is we have been taught what is good or bad for you. But there are other factors that influence that thought process. Generally, highly processed foods come in packaging, a box, or a sleeve, or both. They are the foods that we see the most marketing for. The exception here might be the avocados from Mexico, those ads are everywhere it seems. 

Processed foods are not as good for your health as real foods. It doesn’t really need to be said, everyone knows that. But because they are so tasty, people can’t keep their hands off them. Some of the reasons that they are so bad for you are:

  • Low nutrient density
  • Low fiber
  • Low protein
  • High in cheap ingredients, things like refined sugar and carbs, unhealthy fats. 

Nutrients are fat, carbs, protein, vitamins, minerals and water. Processed foods generally lack most of these, mainly protein, vitamins and minerals (even if the foods are fortified), and water. They are high in fats and carbs. Fats and carbs aren’t bad for you, but if that’s all you eat, you’re going to have some problems. The more common issues you’ll see are low energy, poor digestion (constipation/diarrhea), loss of muscle, unhealthy skin and hair, increased body fat, hormone imbalances, and unhealthy cholesterol levels.

How processed foods “trick” you into eating more.

It’s hard to accurately convey what happens here, no one is actually hijacking your brain and making you put more food in your mouth than you meant to, but it has been shown that highly processed foods do cause people to eat about 500 calories more each day.

So what’s going on here? How does that happen?

What’s a natural food that is crunchy? A bell pepper or celery comes to mind. Those foods are crunchy because they are high in water and fiber. The fiber fills up with water and those full plant cells cause the crunch when you eat it. The calories in bell peppers or celery are negligible. Nature makes you want to eat more because they are very nutrient-dense. So when your brain is presented with something even crunchier, like a cheeto, it lights up and wants you to keep eating.

Another way these processed foods trick you into eating more is the combination of fat, sugar, and salt. There’s nothing found in nature that has all three, sugar, fat, and salt. These three ingredients are things that when found in nature they are usually rather rare, so again when our ancestors found something sweet, we would eat a lot of it because there was no way of knowing when the next sweet food would be found. So if you are given a food that has any combination of fat, sugar or salt, just like with crunchy food, your brain has you wanting more when you’re done eating your first serving.

Is sugar bad for you?

No, eating sugar isn’t bad for you. Sugar is found in fruit, grains, berries, and many other whole foods. However, eating excessive amounts of sugar is something our bodies aren’t equipped to handle. When our bodies are barraged with sweetened drinks, sugary desserts, and loads of foods with high fructose corn syrup, they do their best but it can cause some very bad long term problems.

We have evolved to want sugar because it is high calorie and rare in nature. Fruit is only in season for a short time. In today’s world, sugar is everywhere. You can start your day with it in your morning coffee or breakfast, snack on it during the day and end your day with a treat for dessert. The copious amount of sugar that is available to people today and that we are eating is causing some serious health problems.

Excessive sugar consumption has been shown to lead to insulin resistance, high triglyceride levels, and increased fat accumulation in the liver and abdomen. These can lead to diabetes, obesity, heart disease, hypertension, and cancer, any one of these diseases increases your chances of dying. 

A general rule of thumb when it comes to sugar is to have the majority of the sugar you consume come from whole foods. No one got fat from eating bananas. The processed foods that have added sugar are the real problem.


  • Processed foods are foods that are heavily marketed and have been made to be so tasty you can’t resist eating more.
  • Processed foods can be a part of a healthy diet in appropriate amounts.
  • Whole food will always be best for you.
  • Sugar isn’t bad for you as long as you don’t over consume it.

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