Ultra-Processed Foods Have a Profound Impact on Heart Health, Study Shows

Frozen pizza in freezer at supermarket

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Key Takeaways

  • In a large study, ultra-processed foods were linked to higher risk of cardiovascular issues, including earlier mortality than those who didn’t eat them as often.
  • These associations may be more pronounced in women, researchers suggested.
  • Nutrition experts add that ultra-processed foods can be harmful in other ways as well, such as through hormone disruption.

High consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with increased risks of cardiovascular disease and early mortality, according to a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

Researchers looked at 13 years of dietary data from about 92,000 participants in a cancer screening trial. They found those with the highest likelihood of cardiovascular-related death in that timeframe were also more likely to eat the most ultra-processed food.

By contrast, those who ate the least amount of that type of food were also much more likely to be alive, and without heart issues, at the end of the study period. Researchers added that these associations tend to be more pronounced in women than men.

What Ultra-Processed Means

In the United States, the percentage of calories from ultra-processed foods has reached nearly 60%, the researchers note. In terms of what foods were included, researchers defined “ultra-processed” as:

  • Ready to eat
  • Highly affordable
  • Hyper-palatable
  • Energy dense

This included items like instant noodles, pastries, non-whole-grain breads, ice cream, fried foods, margarine, candy, breakfast cereals, and soft drinks, among other options.

Previous research has indicated that this type of food can increase cardiovascular risk factors, such as hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

Addiction in the Kitchen

When it comes to ultra-processed options, the prevailing guidance tends to be “everything in moderation,” with dietary advice that focuses on being able to have these foods as long as it’s not daily, according to nutrition researcher Joan Ifland, PhD, author of the textbook, “Processed Food Addiction: Foundations, Assessment, and Recovery.”

However, she believes, that’s like having one cigarette—or more accurately, like having a pack of cigarettes occasionally.

“Considering the damage these foods can do, and the addictive nature of them, the comparison to cigarettes is apt,” says Ifland. “But unlike those, we tend to think of ultra-processed foods as a treat or a reward, something we ‘deserve’ for eating healthy the rest of the time.”

In addition to cardiovascular problems, these foods can increase adrenaline in the body, Ifland says, which causes stress on every system. Over time, that leads to a sense of depletion and fatigue—which often is addressed with the consumption of more ultra-processed foods, creating an unhealthy cycle.

“These foods can disrupt hormone function in a significant way,” she says. “That can have a ripple effect of all kinds of problems, including higher risk of depression, fertility issues, anxiety, cognitive struggles, and sleep disturbance.”

Kara Hoerr, RDN

We are constantly listening to these external messages about foods, and even worse, putting them in categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ which turns eating into a moral battleground. When that happens, you tend not to be thinking about how these foods are actually affecting you.

Despite the oft-repeated advice to “treat yourself” with these foods on a very occasional basis, Ifland suggests staying away from them as much as possible.

“Consider them for what they are,” she says. “They’re highly addictive substances that have negative effects on your body.”

Paying Attention

If an approach that relies on total abstinence from ultra-processed foods is not working for you—for example, the restriction might make you crave them even more—some degree of moderation can work, adds dietitian Kara Hoerr, RDN, but she suggests paying attention to the effect.

“We are constantly listening to these external messages about foods, and even worse, putting them in categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ which turns eating into a moral battleground,” she says. “When that happens, you tend not to be thinking about how these foods are actually affecting you.”

For instance, that pizza you craved so much may lead to digestive upset just an hour later, or could leave you feeling hungrier than before, with low energy and irritability. When you begin to connect what you eat with effects in this way, it’s helpful for understanding how food is really working in your body, Hoerr suggests.

“Taking a step back and being more mindful, as well as giving yourself unconditional permission to eat whatever you want so nothing is marked as off limits, is pretty freeing,” she says. “Often, that leads to eating healthy foods not because you’re supposed to, but because that’s what makes you feel good.”

What This Means For You

Overconsumption of ultra-processed foods can be hard on your heart, and has been associated with other health risks as well. Some nutrition experts suggest using moderation, but the best approach may be trying to cut down on them as much as possible.

2 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Zhong, GC., Gu, HT., Peng, Y. et al. Association of ultra-processed food consumption with cardiovascular mortality in the US population: long-term results from a large prospective multicenter studyInt J Behav Nutr Phys Act 18, 21 (2021). doi:10.1186/s12966-021-01081-3

  2. Mendonca RD, Lopes AC, Pimenta AM, Gea A, Martinez-Gonzalez MA, Bes-Rastrollo M. Ultra-processed food consumption and the incidence of hypertension in a Mediterranean cohort: the Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra project. Am J Hypertens. 2017;30:358–66. doi:10.1093/ajh/hpw137

By Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition.