Are All Processed Foods Bad For You?

We hear a lot about processed foods these days, especially about how bad they are for us. It seems like everything from heart disease to obesity has been linked to processed foods. But are they really that bad? There's a little more to the story than you might realize.

The term "processed" can mean a lot of things. On a surface level, it simply refers to any food that has been changed in some way before it is sold to consumers (via Verywell Fit). The way food is processed is much more important than the label itself. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics puts processed foods into five different categories to help explain what is okay to eat and what we should avoid.

The first category is minimally processed foods that are prepped before being sold. This includes things like bagged spinach, pre-cut vegetables, and roasted nuts. Next is foods that are processed at their peak freshness like canned vegetables, frozen fruits, and canned fish. The next category is foods with added ingredients that enhance flavor and texture. This includes items like pasta sauce, yogurt, and salad dressing. Another category is ready-to-eat foods that need to stay fresh and preserved until eaten. This includes items like crackers, granola, and deli meat. The final category is pre-made meals. These items are the most processed and they include things like frozen pizza and microwavable dinners.

Ultra-processed foods should be avoided

Foods that have been the most processed are generally not healthy. Sometimes referred to as ultra-processed foods, these items usually have a long list of added ingredients to enhance flavor and act as preservatives (via Medical News Today). Additives like artificial sweeteners and sodium are common. Consuming a diet with a large amount of added sugar has been linked to overeating, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and inflammatory diseases. Too much sodium has been connected to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

Ultra-processed foods also tend to be low in nutrients and fiber. This means that you probably won't feel full after eating them and that you'll be craving more food in a little while. This can lead to overeating and weight gain. According to Healthline, the worst processed foods you can eat are bacon, granola bars, flavored nuts, microwave popcorn, dried fruit, fruit snacks, margarine, ketchup, instant ramen, and frozen dinners. While it's fine to enjoy these in moderation, avoid them as much as possible for a healthy diet.