Processed foods might not be as harmful if you do this one thing too

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published May 17, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Harvard researchers found that eating a lot of ultra-processed foods may increase death risks if not paired with an otherwise nutritious diet.

  • Dietitians encourage eating diets full of whole foods, fruits, and vegetables.

  • If ultra-processed foods are part of your diet, it can be a good idea to limit your reliance on these foods – and make sure you are not using them in place of anything whole and nutritious.

A new study found that regularly eating ultra-processed foods (UPFs) could negatively impact life expectancy if not paired with an otherwise nutritious diet.[]

The study was conducted by researchers from Harvard University and followed about 75,000 women and about 40,000 men over the course of 34 years. All participants were healthy without histories of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, or diabetes at the onset of the study. Throughout the study, the participants recorded health updates every two years and completed several detailed questionnaires every four years.[]

When comparing participant death risks to UPF intake, researchers found that eating more UPFs could increase death risks. When comparing the diet as a whole to increased death risks, UPF intake did not make as big of a difference. Overall, the findings suggest that the quality of the entire diet has a bigger impact on longevity than the inclusion or exclusion of certain foods.[]

After reviewing the study, some dietitians say that being mindful of what UPFs are paired with–or replacing–could be more important than choosing whether or not to eat them.

Lisa Jones, MA, RDN, LDN, FAND, a registered dietitian based in Philadelphia, says that the findings shed light on “not solely the presence of ultra-processed foods, but the overall quality of one’s diet.”

“It suggests that a well-rounded diet can mitigate the potential harms associated with these foods,” Jones says. “Crucially, the negative impacts of UPFs appear to be moderated by the overall quality of the diet, suggesting that the presence of nutritious foods can mitigate some of the adverse effects.”

Melanie Murphy Richter, MS, RDN, a dietitian at the private practice Wholistic Ritual, says that the findings suggest that regularly following a well-rounded diet may help balance out the negative impacts of UPFs.

“If your body has enough of the nutrients like vitamins and minerals it needs to function properly, it may not be as impacted by poorer food choices,” Richter says. “However, if your diet is right in ultra-processed foods and your overall diet is also low in nutrients, you may be at higher risk for poor health outcomes.”

She says that it will be important for researchers to explore these connections more in future studies—perhaps even using randomized control models to best test results instead of dietary questionnaires.

“It’s important to note that there are serious limitations to the data collected in this study,” Richter says. “Most people cannot accurately recall their actual food intake even after just one week of food, much less when looking back at their diet after two [to four] years.”

Richter encourages viewing the results with caution as these types of studies leave room for error in terms of forgetfulness, as well as under- or over-reporting. Because participants were all from the healthcare industry, the findings may not apply to everyone in the general public, either, Richter says.

What are the worst ultra-processed foods?

To evaluate the relationship between UPFs and death risks, researchers separated participants into categories based on the number of UPFs they ate per day. Those in the highest category ate seven UPFs a day. This category had the highest increased death risk, with about 4% increased risk of death from all causes.

The researchers also noted that not all UPFs reported appear nutritionally equal – and some may be more detrimental to health than others. The foods found to be most problematic to health include:

  • Ready-to-eat meat, poultry and seafood products

  • Fizzy drinks

  • Dairy-based desserts

  • Highly processed breakfast foods

Based on their results, the researchers suggested that people may be able to improve their long-term health by reducing reliance on the above foods. Removing all UPFs, however, may not be necessary.

How to consume ultra-processed foods in moderation

Many dietitians emphasize the importance of moderation in meal plans and say that all foods fit when people follow overall balanced diets. While the study also highlights the benefits of a well-rounded diet, the negatives revealed about certain UPFs suggest that some foods may need to be moderated more closely.

“While the principle of moderation holds true, it’s crucial to define what moderation means in the context of ultra-processed foods,” Jones says. “These foods should be consumed sparingly to ensure they do not displace more nutritious, minimally processed food options. Effective moderation balances occasional indulgences with a foundation of nutritious, whole foods.”

Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, founder of Rumsey Nutrition Consulting and the author of Unapologetic Eating, says that “eating processed foods in addition to more nutrient-dense foods like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes is fine.”

“Rather than getting so focused on individual foods, zoom out and look at the big picture,” Rumsey says. She encourages asking patients to think about questions, “week over week, what nutrient-dense foods are you adding to your diet? Where are processed foods helpful to fit in, for example, for reasons of value, convenience, or taste?”

Focusing on the diet as a whole may not only benefit patients’ lifespan, per the study findings, but it can also help ward off obsessive thoughts around foods that may put them at risk for an eating disorder, Rumsey adds.

“Focusing too much on limiting processed foods can lead to disordered eating and/or eating disorders,” Rumsey explains. “For example, orthorexia is an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. Feeling guilt and shame about the foods you’re eating causes stress, and stress is not good for our health.”

How to talk to patients about ultra-processed foods

When talking to patients about how they can follow a diet that sustains their health and longevity, Jones recommends taking a holistic approach. She suggests encouraging patients to eat a variety of “whole foods, like vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains, which can counterbalance some negative effects of UPFs.”

Other pointers to help you talk to patients about UPFs include:

  1. Highlighting risks associated with certain UPFs. These can include some of the foods flagged in the study for being the most detrimental in terms of lifespan.

“Highlight the risks associated with particular types of UPFs, such as ready-to-eat meats, sugary drinks, dairy-based desserts, and processed breakfast foods,” Jones says. “These items are notably detrimental due to high levels of sugars, fats, and additives while lacking beneficial nutrients.”

2. Encouraging – and offering – dietary substitutions to UPFs.

While it can be a good idea to remove – or remove some – UPFs from the diet, this doesn’t mean that people should be depriving themselves of food. Offering patients feasible and tasty food suggestions can make it easier for them to select healthier options and keep themselves fed.

Jones suggests alternatives like “fresh or minimally processed meats over ready-to-eat options, water or natural juices instead of fizzy drinks, and whole-grain cereals instead of sugary breakfast foods.”

3. Refraining from judgment and acknowledging privilege in fresh food access.

“Access to fresh, nutrient-dense foods is a privilege,” Rumsey says. “Processed foods are often less expensive and easier to access for many people.”

Unfortunately, some people who want to eat fewer processed foods might not be financially capable of making a switch. Refraining from judgment, educating them on the importance of healthy eating, putting them in contact with any resources you are aware of, and advocating for more affordable and accessible whole foods may be some ways you can support their health.

Richter encourages people to remember that “in a society where food production is at an all-time high, it’s nearly impossible to not eat some UPFs here and there.”

“Doing so occasionally is likely not going to do major health harm, assuming you are also focused on eating nutrient-dense foods every day,” she says. ”Remember: When your body has all the nutrients it needs, it can rebound much easier and quicker when you do choose something unhealthy. If you are starting from a low nutrient profile and add more nutrient-poor food choices to your lifestyle, you are likely going to suffer larger consequences.”

What this means for you

A study found that ultra-processed foods can have negative impacts on health and life expectancy, particularly if not paired with an otherwise nutritious diet. Dietitians encourage people to focus on eating whole foods and not to use ultra-processed foods as a replacement for whole foods.

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