The risk of eating processed food just got deadly

Last week I told you about new research that linked a dietary pattern high in ultra-processed foods to a higher colon cancer risk. And now, another new study links this disastrous dietary pattern to a higher all-cause mortality risk. (Which means death from ANY and ALL causes!)

I’ll tell you more about that study in a moment, but first let’s back up and talk a bit about dietary “patterns.”

A recipe for disaster—decades in the making

Decades ago, researchers began looking for specific foods and macronutrients that were considered “good” or “bad” for your health.

Then, beginning in the 1980s, many so-called health “experts” started telling us to eliminate whole categories of foods that contained cholesterol and fat—such as butter, cheese, eggs, meat, nuts, and even certain kinds of seafood.

Of course, these recommendations were all wrong, all along.

The human body needs a balanced diet that includes many different kinds of foods. So eliminating whole categories of nutrients is a recipe for disaster. (For tips on how to get a balanced diet on a balanced budget, search my Insiders’ Cures newsletter archives. Not a subscriber? No problem—simply click here to get started!)

Plus, science shows it’s as just important, or more important, to include more of the right foods than it is to completely eliminate the wrong foods.

And the good news is, you get plenty of the right foods by following a Mediterranean-type diet, which includes:

  • Full-fat dairy, including butter, eggs, cheeses, and yogurt (Remember, in the Mediterranean, they eat cheese at each and every meal. But health experts typically overlook that point because it doesn’t fit their “anti-fat” narrative.)
  • Wild-caught fish and grass-fed, free-range meat, especially lamb, which has the best nutritional profile of all meats
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Six to eight servings of fruits and vegetables each day
  • Alcohol in moderation

Even unprocessed whole grains are okay, in moderation. Just don’t rely on them for your fiber intake. Instead, you get plenty of fiber from fruits and vegetables, as I explain in the current April issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter (“Going against the grain. Don’t be fooledeating more bread and cereal WON’T make you live longer”).

So, did you notice what isn’t included in the traditional Mediterranean diet?

You got it—ultra-processed foods.

Ultra-processed foods are everywhere

When I talk about “ultra-processed foods,” I’m referring to mass-produced, packaged foods high in sugar and carbs—such as candies, breakfast cereals, chips, cookies, crackers, frozen meals, granola bars, most sliced breads, packaged lunch meats, pre-made waffles, and tarts.

In other words, most of the ready-to-eat foods you find along the interior aisles of the grocery store are ultra-processed.

These foods usually contain “empty calories” with little nutritional content. They’re typically low in fiber and high in carbohydrates. And they usually contain artificial, even carcinogenic, food additives.

Thirty-five years ago, I urged my bosses at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to look at a diet high in ultra-processed foods as a cause of cancer and other chronic diseases. But they refused. Instead, they focused on trying to blame cholesterol, fat, and even protein in the diet for all of our health problems.

Thankfully, for the first time ever, this new study finally investigated the connection between ultra-processed foods and mortality risk…

Ultra-processed foods linked to early death

Researchers followed a group of nearly 45,000 adults, ages 45 years and older. They administered 24-hour dietary recall surveys to participants over a year and a half.

As we know, there’s no routine way to validate the data that comes from asking people to remember what they ate over the last 24 hours, or alternately, on recording the frequency of the consumption of foods (without literally going through the subjects’ trash).

In fact, when my colleague archaeologist Bill Rathje at the University of Arizona did this kind of research, he found these types of questionnaires were notoriously unreliable, and their data was just as much “junk” as the waste he found in their garbage.

So, while these are notoriously faulty ways of assessing dietary intake (unless steps are taken to validate the data reported), people tend to underestimate the “bad” foods they eat, along with lots of other errors.

And it turns out, there was still a strong dose-response effect (despite the bias against admitting to eating junk foods). Which means the more ultra-processed foods consumed, the greater the risk in all-cause mortality (death from any cause).

In fact, for each 10 percent increase in processed food intake, there was a 14 percent increase in all-cause mortality risk. And researchers believe the high sugar and low fiber content of processed foods contributed to the elevated mortality risk.

So, had the researchers used a more accurate and effective methods of collecting data, chances are this all-cause mortality risk would come out to be even higher!

Problems are much worse in the U.S.

The researchers also mentioned what’s known as the “healthy volunteer” effect. In other words, participants in this study are more health-conscious than the general population, meaning the problem would be worse in the general population.

Plus, this study involved French people, who are historically very conscious about eating high-quality, healthy, fresh, whole foods. In fact, on average, only 14 percent of daily food intake in this study came from processed sources. (Yes, some junk food has penetrated even into France. But clearly not to the same extent as it has in the U.S.) Nonetheless, the study still found that processed foods had a drastic effect on mortality rates.

And do you think only 14 percent of the typical American diet consist of ultra-processed foods? That figure isn’t even close. I’d say it’s probably closer to 50 percent for about 50 percent of the population!

Just go to any big grocery store and count the dozen or more shelves in the center aisles, loaded with ultra-processed foods. Then count the aisles filled with fresh, whole, unprocessed foods that require refrigeration.

You’ll quickly notice the deck is stacked against following a balanced diet filled with a variety of whole, fresh foods. Instead, the U.S. would rather stock their grocery store shelves with processed food that can sit there for months without going bad.

So, here’s another reason to skip the grocery store altogether, when you can. Try to get your meats and dairy from local farmers who raise grass-fed cattle and free-range poultry.

My local farmer’s market carries a beautiful array of local, organic fruits, vegetables, and dairy throughout most of the year. Foods that are sold for consumption within 50 miles of where they are produced also can skip a lot of the nonsense federal regulations imposed to essentially protect the crony corporatist big food industry. (Click here to help you find a farmer’s market near you.)

Or better yet—now that spring is here—consider planting your own garden so you can enjoy all the healthy bounty.


“Association Between Ultraprocessed Food Consumption and Risk of Mortality Among Middle-aged Adults in France.” JAMA Intern Med 2019;179(4):490-498.