Processed Food + Your Health

Processed Foods and Your Health

A review involved in nearly 10 million participants offer some of the most compelling evidence that highly processed foods can be harmful to our physical and mental health.*

A British Medical Journal study combined results from 14 studies to look at the connection between ultra-processed foods and various Health outcomes.  In this study they found that eating highly processed foods was linked to higher risk of 35 of 45 adverse Health outcomes. 

53% more likely to have depression or anxiety issues 

50% more likely to die from cardiovascular disease 

12% more likely to have diabetes 

67% greater risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease 

For every 10% increase in ultra processed foods cancer risk increases by 10% 

With regards to cognitive health- if more than 20% of the daily caloric intake comes from ultra processed foods, there is a 25% faster rate of global cognitive decline and 25% faster rate of executive cognitive decline. 

In terms of cognitive well-being and increase or decrease of ultra-processed foods by 50 g per day can change the risk of dementia by 3%.  For comparison, 50 g is equal to half an apple or one chocolate bar. 

Ultra processed foods are usually high in sodium which can cause hypertension and decrease blood flow to the brain. In addition, these foods can also cause inflammation thus accelerating the progression of neurodegenerative and vascular pathology in the brain. Ultra processed foods are also high in sugar and low in fiber thus affecting blood sugar levels. 

According to Canada's Food Guide, here is the best way to reduce ultra processed foods in your diet: 

  • Try not to keep highly processed foods at home
  • Replace sugary drinks with water
  • Choose healthier menu options when eating out
  • Choose less processed foods, such as leftover baked chicken instead of deli meats 
  • Make homemade versions of your favourite highly processed foods such as muffins
  • Make your own frozen dinners by choosing a healthy recipe and freezing it in meal-sized portions
  • Stock your kitchen with healthy snacks such as nuts, fruit, carrots, and hard-boiled eggs
  • Plan your meals and snacks in advance
  • Use the food label when grocery shopping to make informed choices

What exactly is a processed food?

The NOVA system classifies all foods into four groups. 

Group 1: Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods 

These include fruits and vegetables, dried beans, meat and dairy milk. 

Group 2: Processed Culinary Ingredients 

This group can include oil sugar and salt. 

Group 3: Processed foods 

Processed foods are derived from whole food and may contain the main ingredient plus one or two others, usually from group 2. Examples from this group include tofu, brined olives, salted nuts, and whole grain pasta. 

Group 4: Ultra-Processed Foods 

UPFs are industrial foods made mostly or entirely from substances extracted from whole foods.  They contain NO wholefoods and usually have 5 or more ingredients. Usually they cannot be made in your home kitchen! 

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*References: 

  1. The BMJ
  2. CNN
  3. Forks Over Knives 
  4. Neurology;
  5. Food Guide Canada

Written by: Efan Gonsalves, PT, AT (retired) Clinical Director- Markham 

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