Digestive Health

Processed foods and digestive health, what you must know

A Caucasian man and woman sitting at an outdoor table eating pizza and enjoying time with friends because they are taking care of their digestive health.


Learn about the link between ultra-processed foods and digestive diseases so you can make healthy choices for your gut and feel your best!


By Suma Magge, MD, Gastroenterology, Nuvance Health


You have probably heard that ultra-processed foods are not good for you; they have always been a part of our modern diets, but they can negatively affect our health if we consume too much. Learn about ways to identify these unhealthy foods, the impact they can have on your digestive health and their connection to digestive diseases.


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What are ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed foods get their name because of the extensive industrial processing they undergo and the additives they contain. These unhealthy foods are typically high in calories, contain added sugars, unhealthy fats and sodium. They lack essential nutrients that your body needs to function properly.


Examples of ultra-processed foods include packaged snacks, fast food, frozen meals and sugary beverages. These foods often contain artificial flavors, preservatives and additives to enhance taste, extend shelf life and improve texture. A diet rich in ultra-processed foods can increase the risk of digestive diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Studies also suggest a potential link between these foods and colon cancer.


Related content: How does nutrition affect colorectal cancer risk?


The connection between ultra-processed foods and digestive diseases


The rise in ultra-processed food consumption correlates with an increase in digestive diseases. These foods disrupt the gut microbiome, crucial for digestive health, leading to harmful bacteria overgrowth and beneficial bacteria reduction. This imbalance can trigger digestive disorders like IBS and IBD.


Ultra-processed foods can cause inflammation in the digestive system, contributing to gastritis, ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. While genetics, lifestyle and environment also influence digestive diseases, reducing the ultra-processed foods, you eat and consuming whole, unprocessed foods can significantly enhance your digestive health and reduce your risk of digestive diseases and colon cancer.


Learn more about Nuvance Health’s Digestive Health Institute.


Identifying ultra-processed foods in your diet

It is essential to recognize the ultra-processed foods in your diet to maintain healthy eating. Tips include checking ingredient lists, being cautious of excessive packaging, opting for whole, natural ingredients, and being mindful of high sugar and sodium content. Hidden sources of ultra-processed foods include sauces, dressings, condiments and processed meats. By making conscious food choices, you can reduce ultra-processed food intake and improve your overall digestive health.


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Health risks of consuming ultra-processed foods


Despite convenience, ultra-processed foods pose health risks such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, increased risk of colon cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Prioritizing whole, unprocessed foods is crucial for maintaining a healthy lifestyle and avoiding these risks.


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Improving digestive health by reducing consumption of ultra-processed foods


Moving towards a diet based on whole foods can enhance digestive health. A balanced diet includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats, providing essential nutrients and supporting beneficial gut bacteria. Healthier alternatives include oatmeal with berries and nuts, homemade trail mix, grilled chicken or fish and infused water or herbal teas. These changes can help control your digestive health and reduce the impact of ultra-processed foods.


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See a digestive health specialist for gut concerns


Persistent digestive issues require consultation with a digestive health specialist. Symptoms like abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, blood in stool or lasting changes in bowel habits warrant specialist evaluation from a gastroenterologist. Specialists can perform diagnostic tests and provide guidance for managing digestive diseases. Nuvance Health offers comprehensive care for digestive diseases, aiming to improve digestive health and enhance quality of life through advanced diagnostic tools and innovative treatments.


Related Content: Gut feeling: When should you see a gastroenterologist?


The bottom line: The impact of consuming ultra-processed foods is excess on your digestive health is significant and warrants attention. These foods can disrupt the gut microbiome, trigger inflammation and increase the risk of digestive diseases and colon cancer. Recognizing and reducing your intake of ultra-processed foods is crucial for maintaining digestive health. By choosing whole, unprocessed foods and seeking advice from a digestive health specialist such as a gastroenterologist, you can improve your digestive health and overall well-being. Making informed food choices about what you eat is key to nurturing a healthy gut and leading a healthier life.