Are Processed Foods Killing Us?

Health Writer

Editor's Note: This article is a part of an Op-Ed series, “Second Opinion,” where patient experts share their take on current research, news, and trends in health and medicine. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the opinions or views of

As a nutritionist, I’ve seen every type of diet. In recent years I’ve encountered people who believe their diet is full of “healthy” processed foods, and consumers who only eat processed foods for ease and especially for taste. They can be vegetarian or health food nuts, junk-a-holics, or people who eat these foods for convenience. Quite often, the people who come to me because they are struggling with weight issues are compounding those weight struggles by their so-called healthy food choices. In a 2018 FoodNavigator interview, Dr. Robert Lustig, professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of California San Francisco, asserted that processed foods are killing us.

One of the biggest debates in health and nutrition is whether a “calorie is a calorie.” In other words, do calories from different sources – proteins, fats, carbohydrates (grains, fruits, vegetables), processed and junk food – all behave the same way when they are consumed and digested by the body? I have always said “no” and Dr. Lustig would appear to strongly agree with me.

If you eat a high fiber food, for example, your body will expend extra energy in order to digest that food, and that translates into overall less calories being absorbed. Hence, if you’re trying to lose weight, eating sensible portion sizes of high fiber foods will help you to burn extra calories and to absorb or hold onto fewer calories. Processed foods rarely offer this edge.

Dr. Lustig has been strongly outspoken about the evils of our high sugar diets suggesting that sugar instigates metabolic dysfunction, which he believes then fuels obesity. He has argued that when processed foods were originally introduced, their purpose was to help with occasional convenience – when mom couldn’t get a home-cooked dinner on the table one night a week, you could turn to these new frozen prepared meals. Or if you forgot your apple, or suddenly found yourself hungry, mid-afternoon, you could grab a granola bar.

We all have unfortunately let these foods permeate out diets and our kid’s diets as the major source of calories. And that means we are eating a less nutrient dense diet, filled with processed ingredients that don’t offer health benefits and that mess with our metabolic function. All calories are not created equal.

Even among basic macronutrients – carbohydrates, fats, and proteins - there’s a differential. Our bodies work a bit harder and expend more energy to process and digest protein compared to carbohydrates like grains. Those excess calories from grains (often times gargantuan and frequent servings), are being transported to and stored in fat cells and they are largely driving obesity.

In fact, a 2018 study has suggested that a low carb diet versus a low fat diet yields pretty much similar weight loss results. The missing descriptive term in that statement is “healthy.” These two prototype diets in the study were healthy carbohydrate and healthy low fat diets, filled with whole foods, largely unprocessed. The two groups ate what Dr. Lustig would refer to as “real foods” and yes, they both lost weight.

Dr. Lustig’s central message was that “food companies need to start selling real food. Processed foods are an experiment that (has) failed. Food manufacturers are getting rich while they are essentially killing us.” We are eating too many servings of largely refined food products that no longer resemble real food.

Nutrition bar manufacturers try to create a perfect snack or meal replacement, using whey or soy protein or more recently pea protein, and a host of other ingredients to make the bar nutritionally sound while also tasting good. They often limit sugar by using sugar substitutes and sugar alcohol. These portable highly processed foods are convenient and frankly their taste profile can be quite addictive.

But you should be choosing a nutrition bar occasionally and regularly eat an egg, piece of fruit, and handful of nuts as your meal – same calories but real food. Don’t get me started on cereals.

There’s a premise in nutrition that the best diet is the one that you will stick with. Experts like Dr. Lustig would caution that the diet you choose should also be filled with wholesome foods in their mostly natural state.

For example, a 2018 study has suggested a banana is the equivalent of a sports drink when it comes to recovery foods after significant exercise exertion. I would certainly suggest there are many additional nutrient benefits from that banana compared to the common sports drink.

What did you eat or feed your kids today? How much of it was recognizable food and how much of it was manufactured (high fat, high sugar, high sodium)? Consider starting to swap in fruits, vegetables with healthy dips like hummus, seeds and nuts, eggs, poultry and fish cooked simply, and Greek yogurt, in lieu of the processed and refined choices you are eating.

If necessary, take baby steps, but if you choose whole real foods slowly over time, you will nourish your body, help to restore your gut microbiome, and possibly nudge some weight loss too.

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