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  • Writer's pictureMelissa Mathes


Half of the average American diet contains processed foods. The problem with processed foods is they often contain high amounts of added sugars and unhealthy fats. Added sugars and unhealthy fats in the diet contribute to overweight and obesity, which in turn increases the risk of many chronic diseases (cardiovascular, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.) and cancers.

A study published in the British Medical Journal, looked at a French study called the NutriNet-Sante study in 2009. The researchers were looking at the relationship between food, nutrition and health. They evaluated 105,000 adult food records to determine the percentage of ultra processed foods in their diets every 6 months over 5 years. They used a classification system called NOVA to identify processed food categories.

Ultra processed foods: sodas, sweet or savory packaged snacks, mass produced packaged breads and pastries, chicken and fish nuggets, sausages, French fries, cookies and packaged soups and noodles.

Processed Foods: canned foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, cured and smoked meats, canned fish, cheese, freshly made bread, salted or sugared nuts

Processed culinary ingredients: vegetable, seed and nut OILS, butter, molasses, honey, maple syrup

Unprocessed or minimally processed foods: fresh fruit, vegetables and juices, lentils, chickpeas, black beans, potatoes, mushrooms, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk, pasta, four, nuts

Results showed a 10% increase of ultra processed food intake correlated with a 12% overall risk for cancer and an 11% overall risk for breast cancer. This study looked at cancers, and identified over 2,200 cancers among the participants in a five-year period, after accounting for co-variables like BMI, smoking, etc.

Some researchers also used data from the NHANES and compared the diets high in ultra processed foods to diets with unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Looking at calories, nutrients and overall diet quality at different levels of processed food consumption, these are the findings:

  • More than half of calories come from ultra processed foods

  • Less than one third come from unprocessed or minimally processed foods

  • About 12 % of calories come from the other foods category (cooking ingredients and cheese)


  • The more ultra processed foods Americans ate, the less protein, fiber, vitamins A, C, D and E, potassium, and calcium they got AND the more added sugars, unhealthy fats and overall unhealthy carbohydrates in their diets

    • These participants had higher rates of cancers and overweight and obesity related diseases

  • Inversely, those with higher amounts of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and fewer ultra processed foods in their diet, ultimately had a higher quality diet. A more unprocessed/minimally-processed diet contains more fiber, potassium, vitamins A, C, D and E and less saturated fats and added sugars.

Multiple studies show that eating a diet high plant foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, pulses (lentils, beans, dried peas), nuts and seeds decreases obesity, diseases like Type2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, etc. and many cancers. Combine this with a low processed food diet and you’ve got a recipe for a healthy life!

Do your best to avoid ultra processed foods as much as possible. Try to eat more whole fresh foods, and the least amount of the ingredients the better. EAT MORE PLANTS !!!!

Melissa A. Mathes, MPH, RDN, CSSD

Euridice Matinex Steele, Barry M. Popkin, Boyd Swinburn and Carlos A. Monteiro Population Health MetricsAdvancing innovation in health measurement201715:6 ©  The Author(s) 2017 Received: 27 May 2016 Accepted: 10 January 2017

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