Are Processed Foods Killing Your Gains?

by on June 21, 2016

These days the word “Processed Foods” gets thrown around a lot in the fitness industry and it even gets as much slander as the words “Cheat Meals” and “Eating Clean.”

In this context, the pressing question is…Does eating processed foods kill your muscle gains?

Let’s take a look at what the scientific literature has to say about all this mumbo jumbo.

What Does “Processed Foods” Really Mean?

Before we dig in and answer this pressing question above, we first want to hit the rewind button and educate you on how food is processed and what it all really means.

To process food means to use a series of mechanical or chemical operations to change or preserve it. A review by Floros et al described processing as “one or more of a range of operations, including:

  • Washing
  • Grinding
  • Mixing
  • Cooling
  • Storing
  • Heating
  • Freezing
  • Filtering
  • Fermenting
  • Extracting
  • Extruding
  • Frying
  • Drying
  • Concentrating
  • Irridating
  • Microwaving
  • Packaging

There are a multitude of foods in the diet like bread, cheese, beer, and wine that are highly processed, yet aren’t looked at as “processed” foods by consumers.
It’s absolutely true that in some cases processed foods create problems, specifically in cases of abusing and over consuming highly refined food products and neglecting whole and minimally refined foods.

However, food technology has also contributed significantly to the improvement of human health and specifically the ability to optimize nutrition for populations such as:

  • Infants
  • Pregnant mothers
  • People with food allergies
  • Athletes
  • The elderly

There are so many populations that have nutrient deficiencies and if it weren’t for food technology these populations would be at high risk of disease and possibly even death.
What about high level athletes? Food technology has played a significant role in the enhancement of athletic performance through recovery drinks and easy to digest foods. Let’s take NFL players for example, when training camp starts they usually perform two a days. Do you really think after each training session they can gorge down a chicken breast and sweet potato and then go back at it for another session? As if the digestive tract doesn’t exist…

Did we forget to mention high level bodybuilders that have high caloric intakes? This population needs food technology in order to reach their high caloric intakes and higher than average macronutrient allotments. For example, you just can’t simply eat 500g of carbs worth of potatoes, oats, and veggies without experiencing digestive tract problems. We can’t forget the population that doesn’t eat meat; this is where protein shakes come in handy.

Highs and Lows with Food Technology

A recent review by van Boekel et al lists the most important benefits of food processing:ii

Food safety (pathogens): The main benefit of food processing is inactivation of food-borne pathogens, as is normally required by food safety legislation.
Food safety (other aspects): Inactivation of natural toxins and enzymes, prolongation of shelf life.
Nutritional value: Improved digestibility, bioavailability of nutrients.
Sensory quality: Taste, texture, and flavor. Functional health benefits such as probiotics, prebiotics, etc.
Maillard reaction products (MRP’s), flavonoids, other food constituents and their reaction products.
Convenience: availability of ready to eat and semi prepared foods such as microwavable frozen meals.
Cost: Economy of Scale
Diversity: Independence forms the seasonal availability of foods, and introduction of global food supply chain.
Quality of Life: Improved because less time required for food supply and preparation

As you can see, there are highs to processed foods and this is also backed up by research from Bender et al’s lab out of the United Kingdom.
Now, on the contrary, food processing can also damage food quality, leading to undesired consequences, such as:iii
Losses of certain (essential) nutrients due to chemical reactions (e.g. vitamin C, available lysine).
Formation of undesired compounds, e.g. acrylamide, acrolein chloropropanediols and –esters, heterocyclic amnes, etc.
In some cases, formation of compounds that have a negative effect on flavor perception (for instance, sulphur compounds formed during heating of milk.
Loss of texture, discoloration, etc.iv

Moreover, processed foods can also lead to an increase in dietary components that may need to be limited, such as salt, sugars, and saturated fats.
As you can see, there are lows to processed foods.

Should You Fear Processed Foods?

Of course in this day and age we always have to fear something and this is mainly influenced by incorrect mass media.

But what if we told you the consumer research by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) shows that 43% of consumers are concerned about some aspects of processed foods? v

The many issues currently being debated include views on the following:

  • Nutritional quality
  • Freshness
  • Safety
  • Origin (locally grown compared with grown elsewhere)
  • Healthfulness
  • Sustainability
  • Techniques used for raising them (organic compared with non-organic and genetically modified organisms
  • Perceived ethical aspects of production

One of the major issues with food processing is commercial food processing technique is poorly understood by the general public. These techniques that are used to process foods are difficult for the public to understand and not to mention are out of their control, thus causing people to look at things in a vacuum per say, black and white thinking, and generating suspicion and concerns about safety. This is very similar to those that bash research studies without even knowing how difficult the process is to conduct a study.

However, that’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with trying to be as healthy as you possibly can and putting safety at the forefront of your health. But there’s something wrong when the scientific data is ignored. A recent systematic review by Nicolia looked at genetically engineered crop safety and they didn’t find any significant hazards with genetically modified (GM) foods compared to the non GM stuff. This body of literature is controversial, but the trends lean towards safety and you have to consider that biotechnology is all necessary and life-saving and it all really makes the world turn.

We would have thousands of diseases and deaths without food technology, without genetic modification to produce the enhancement and wide range of foods. Just think about how convenient whey protein is and how a mass amount of people can’t digest a certain allotment of protein per day or think green foods, people need these because their GI tracts simply can’t digest raw veggies. There are no trends on hazard or adverse effects with GM foods vs non GM foods.

There’s a bunch of review articles and analysis on the safety of consuming genetically engineered crops and the nutritional differences between genetically modified animals.


Let’s revisit the pressing question from earlier…Does eating processed foods kill your muscle gains?

It absolutely-100% does not hinder your muscle gains.

Keep in mind context does need to be added here and we are going to provide you with some key take home points:

If you follow a flexible nutrition approach, then an 80/20 rule consisting of 80% whole and minimally refined foods should dominate your diet and 20% semi junk food that you prefer should be included into the diet
Processed foods can help you meet your nutrition needs. For example, protein shakes come in handy to meet your daily requirement. If you are in a calorie surplus, you simply can’t eat 100% “clean” foods and expect to 1) crave sweets and semi junk foods that you prefer and 2) you can’t digest that much fiber per day
Rather than completely limiting processed foods in a nutrition program, it may be more productive to encourage the best available options, namely, those that provide fewer in-adequate nutrients and more essential nutrients to encourage for the calories consumed. If we become smart consumers and keep our goals in mind, body type, activity levels, metabolic variances, and health in mind, we can certainly have a diet predominantly containing whole and minimally refined foods along with some room for some processed foods.
This controversial topic of processed vs un-processed foods just may come down to the consumers goals when choosing between processed or un-processed foods. For example, if one is trying to lose weight or diet down for a show, it would be a better choice to choose whole and minimally refined foods instead of processed-packaged foods. The reason being, the more packaged foods there are, the greater the chance of error on their side (labeling). We don’t have any data to back up this claim, but anecdotally we have seen this with clients. The minute we have them remove low carb products, bars, basically “diet friendly” packaged foods they drop weight.
On the contrary, if someone isn’t dieting, is in a hypercaloric state, or a high level athlete that has an extremely vigorous activity level and high macronutrient allotment, they can probably get away with having more processed foods in their nutrition programs. Sure they still have to have nutrient dense foods to perform at a high level but they have more wiggle room to work with and can get away with it as opposed to the person dieting or not so active population.

We will leave you guys with a quote from Weaver et al’s paper:vi

“We conclude that processed foods are nutritionally important to American diets. They contribute to both food security (ensuring that sufficient food is available) and nutrition security (ensuring that food quality meets human nutrient needs).”


  1. Floros et al. Feeding the world today and tomorrow: the importance of food science and technology. IFT scientific review. 2010
  2. Van Boekal et al. A review of the beneficial aspects of food processing. Mol. Nutr. Food Res. 2010
  3. Van Boekal et al. A review of the beneficial aspects of food processing. Mol. Nutr. Food Res. 2010
  4. Weaver et al. Processed foods: contributions to nutrition. America Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2014
  5. International Food Information Council Foundation. 2011 Food and health survey; consumer attitudes toward food safety, nutrition, and health. 2012
  6. Weaver et al. Processed foods: contributions to nutrition. America Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2014

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