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Eating Ultra-processed Foods Linked to Over 30 Health Problems

By Shyla Cadogan, RD

By now, most people know that the candies, chips, cakes, and sodas aren’t healthy. Now, new research is helping drive the point home. Solid evidence shows that exposure to ultra-processed foods is associated with an increased risk of 32 negative health outcomes, including cancer, mental health conditions, and early death.

Ultra-processed foods refer to sugary cereals, drinks, frozen TV dinners, and other foods that undergo heavy industrial processing and contain significant amounts of additives and preservatives. While it isn’t the case for all, most ultra-processed foods are typically low in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, while packed with added sugar and excessive amounts of fat and salt. In Western nations, they can account for nearly 58 percent of daily energy intake. As some low to middle income nations continue to advance, the intake of these foods also has gone up.

So far, studies have continued to show that highly processed food are linked to poorer health outcomes, but there has been no comprehensive review that broadly assesses the current evidence. The researchers of this study conducted an evidence review of 45 pooled meta-analyses from 14 articles associating ultra-processed foods with adverse health outcomes. The analyzed reviews were published within the past three years and included nearly 10 million participants. None of the works received funding from companies linked to the production of ultra-processed foods.

The team obtained estimates of exposure to ultra-processed foods by using a combination of food frequency questionnaires, diet history, and 24-hour dietary recalls. The researchers then graded the evidence on a scale of “convincing,” “highly suggestive,” “suggestive,” “weak,” or “no evidence.” Quality of the evidence was assessed on a scale of high, moderate, low, or very low.

The “convincing evidence” reveals that higher exposure to ultra-processed foods was consistently linked to an increased risk of these 32 harmful outcomes. More specifically, there was a 50-percent increased risk of cardiovascular disease-related death, a 48 to 53-percent higher risk of anxiety and other common mental disorders, and a 12-percent heightened risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Meanwhile, the “highly suggestive evidence” shows that higher intake was associated with a 21-percent greater risk of death from any cause, a 40 to 60-percent increased risk of heart disease related death, obesity, sleep problems, and more. As far as asthma, gastrointestinal conditions, and certain cancers, the evidence isn’t as robust.

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The team recognizes that the study design can only give an overview and doesn’t rule out the chance that confounding factors could affect the results. Still, the use of meticulous systematic methods to assess the quality and credibility of the analyses demonstrates that the results remain strong.

“These findings support urgent mechanistic research and public health actions that seek to target and minimize ultra-processed food consumption for improved population health,” the research team writes in a media release.

Additionally, they say that multidisciplinary investigations “are needed to identify the most effective ways to control and reduce ultra-processing and to quantify and track the cost-benefits and other effects of all such policies and actions on human health and welfare, society, culture, employment, and the environment.”

A Dietitian’s Take

It’s clear that what we eat impacts our health. There is a misconception that every food that comes in a box or can is ultra-processed and therefore drives disease, however that isn’t true.

Canned tuna and beans are examples of processed foods. However, foods that make up over 50 percent of the average American’s diet are ultra-processed foods like soft drinks, chips, chocolate, ice cream, sugary cereals, pizzas, chicken nuggets, and fries. This is what should be limited to help prevent chronic disease, such as those mentioned in this research.

Although there are some conditions with little research tying them to poor diet, there is mounting evidence linking the most prevalent diseases throughout the country, including hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes. So, here’s some advice:

  • Drink more water.
  • Read labels and look for added sugar, fat, and sodium content to make better food choices.
  • Focus on including more vegetables, fruits, beans, meats, and seafood in your diet.

When we focus on what to add, we are less likely to eat the things we should be cutting back on. By including more whole and minimally processed foods, you will naturally have less room for the ultra-processed junk food!

The findings are published in the BMJ.

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Source: Study Finds

Shyla Cadogan is a DMV-Based acute care Registered Dietitian. She holds specialized interests in integrative nutrition, metabolic dysfunction, and gastrointestinal disease.

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