Highly processed food effect on physical health: higher death rate then tobacco.

Research shows unhealthy diet caused 19.1% deaths in 2016 vs. 17.8% from tobacco.

Thousands of research studies throughout the years have studied how highly processed food affects us. In this article I will be giving you a rundown on the most prevalent research evidence on highly processed food’s effect on our physical health.

This is part 2 of 7 in the series “The Truth behind highly processed food”. In the previous article we discussed what is highly processed food and what to look out for: There are four levels of food processing, but our main concern is the highly processed foods which include artificial colors and flavors, high levels of added sugar, sodium, and fat.

These ingredients make the food taste better, however, too much of it leads to physical health issues such as obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes; among with mental health issues such as mood disorders, anxiety, depression, and increased risk of cancer, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.

A higher death risk than tobacco:

A recent study performed by researchers at the University of Chapel Hill found that more than 60% of the food purchased annually in America is highly processed. Research has shown that an unhealthy diet contributes to approximately 678,000 deaths each year in the U.S., due to nutrition- and obesity-related diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. Calculating 19.1% of total deaths in 2016, considering the known health risk of Tobacco that has 17.8% total death risks; the percentage is way too close for nutritional health to be taken lightly. (CSPI)

Obesity & hidden sugar:

  • Obesity is a well-known concern, especially in the United States. With the increase in highly processed foods and unhealthy diets, obesity prevalence increased from 30.5% to 42.4% between 1999 and 2018 according to the CDC. It is known that a high intake of sugar contributes to obesity, which can lead to other chronic diseases.

Highly processed foods often contain high amounts of added sugar, however, the word sugar often doesn’t appear on the label. There are as many as 50 different words used to list types of sugar added to processed foods.

The most common names are: corn syrup, fructose, glucose, sucrose, malt or maltose, honey, molasses, or nectar.

Known as “empty calories,” any type of sugar, including those disguised varieties, adds no nutritional value except carbohydrates and calories and in fact, may encourage your body to consume even more calories.

The 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that added sugars should be limited to no more than 10% of daily calories. This equals about 12 teaspoons of sugar per day, which sounds pretty generous until you put into perspective that the average soft drink contains about 10 teaspoons alone.


Consumption of sugar triggers a sense of pleasure and craving within the brain comparable to that associated with drug addiction. This explains why it is so hard to resist seconds after indulging in a sweet treat and why we might experience subconscious cravings for other highly processed meals and snacks.

Cardiovascular disease:

Filippa Juul, MS, Ph.D. used data from the Framingham Offspring Study to examine the role ultra-processed foods play in cardiovascular disease. The study included 3,003 middle-aged adults with an average of 53 years.

Overall, 5.8% had diabetes and 19% had high blood pressure; prevalence was higher among participants who were high consumers of ultra-processed foods compared to low consumers. Results showed that during an average of 18 years of follow-up, a total of 648 cardiovascular events occurred, including 251 cases of hard cardiovascular disease and 163 cases of hard coronary heart disease.

There were 713 deaths during the follow-up period, including 108 cardiovascular disease deaths. Participants with the highest intakes of ultra-processed foods had higher incident rates compared to those consuming the least amount of ultra-processed foods.

Each daily serving of ultra-processed food was associated with a 7% increase in the risk of hard cardiovascular disease, a 9% increase in the risk of hard CHD, a 5% increase in overall cardiovascular disease, and a 9% risk in cardiovascular disease mortality.


A research study from the NutriNet-Santé cohort tracked the eating habits and health records of 104,980 adults for 5 years.

Those who ate the most ultra-processed foods were most likely to get some form of cancer over the study period. The researchers then looked at cancer risk based on an average number of servings per day over 5 years.

For each 10% increase in ultra-processed food intake, there was a 12% increase in overall cancer risk and an 11% increase in breast cancer. That’s the difference between eating one whole Twinkie per week for 5 years and someone who eats one whole Twinkie plus one bite of another one per week over the same time.


A research study tracked eating habits for 6 years of more than 104,000 adults without diabetes with an average age of 43. Overall, about 17% of participants’ diets consisted of ultra-processed foods.

People who consumed more of these foods tended to eat more calories overall, have lower quality diets, and be more likely to be obese and inactive.

During the study period, 821 people were diagnosed with diabetes. Each 10% increase in the amount of ultra-processed foods in participants’ diets was associated with a 15% higher risk of developing diabetes, researchers report in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Metabolic syndrome:

The connection between ultra-processed foods and diabetes persisted even after researchers accounted for the nutritional quality of people’s diets, including obesity and other metabolic disorders.

Metabolic syndrome is defined as a group of risk factors that can lead to heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Metabolic syndrome is diagnosed when any three or more of the following five risk factors are present: increased waistline (also known as being “apple-shaped”) with abdominal obesity; Elevated triglycerides, or needing medication to lower triglycerides; Low HDL (healthy) cholesterol levels, or needing medication due to low HDL levels; High blood pressure, or needing medication to treat high blood pressure; High fasting blood glucose or needing a medication due to high fasting blood glucose.

When refined carbohydrates are consumed in excess quantities, the sugars must be stored in the body typically as fat, and may lead to several metabolic consequences.

An example of these types of metabolic occurrences is frequent spikes in blood glucose levels requiring insulin to stabilize. Over time, this can lead to insulin resistance, as well as increase the levels of triglycerides in the blood. The cumulative effects of these metabolic disturbances can raise the risk of developing heart disease and diabetes.

Inflammatory bowel disease:

Processed foods can also play a role in the development of inflammatory bowel disease, also known as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

This time, the culprit is a type of chemical additive called emulsifiers, which are used to extend shelf life and help hold the shape or texture of foods.

A team of researchers from the prospective urban rural epidemiology (PURE) study, gathered dietary information from 116,087 adults 35–70 years old. Participants were enrolled in the study between 2003 and 2016 and were assessed at least every three years.

Over an average follow-up of 9.7 years, new diagnoses of inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, were recorded. During this time, 467 participants developed inflammatory bowel disease, 90 with Crohn’s disease, and 377 with ulcerative colitis.

Different subgroups of ultra-processed food, including soft drinks, refined sweetened foods, salty snacks, and processed meat, each were associated with higher risks of IBD. The researchers found that a higher intake of ultra-processed food was associated with a higher risk of inflammatory bowel disease. When compared with less than one serving of ultra-processed food per day, they found an 82% increased risk of IBD among those who consumed five or more servings per day, and a 67% increased risk for 1–4 servings per day.

Autoimmune diseases are triggered when the body’s immune system goes haywire and attacks its own cells. There are over 100 different autoimmune diseases, but the more common ones are type 1 diabetes, lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. In these diseases, the immune system confuses healthy cells as unhealthy and prompts an attack on the body it is meant to protect.

Considering the many health dangers of processed foods and its risk on shortening our lifespan, ideally we’d opt for cleaner earing habits.

This is not to say eat only salads and organic foods. What is important to consider is the ingredients, what are you actually putting in your body?

Is it really orange juice or is it a chemical concoction of chemicals with flavoring of orange?

This article is part 2 of 7 on The Truth Behind Processed Food.

In the next parts I will be discussing according to research, the effects of processed food on your Mental Health, history of how processed food came into society, why processed food and our diet effects us, and lastly the best and easiest tactics to changing your habits from processed food to clean healthier options to heal your body inside out!

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Thank you for reading! Have a blessed week!

-love, Gabi



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