Eating nutrient-dense and nourishing foods is essential for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. We are all aware that eating processed foods isn’t good for our health. But now, two large studies suggest that these convenience foods may come at a high cost to our health, much more than we previously realized.
The research found that people who consumed higher amounts of “ultra-processed” foods are at greater risk of heart disease, colorectal cancer, and early death.
What are ultra-processed foods?
Highly-processed or ultra-processed foods contain high levels of fat, salt, and sugar, along with various additives. According to Harvard Health, examples of ultra-processed foods are frozen meals, soda, cold cuts, sweets, and ready-to-eat or microwave meals. These foods are made in an industrial setting and include such ingredients as emulsifiers, artificial flavors, coloring, preservatives, and bulking agents.
Other examples of ultra-processed foods include:
* Energy bars
* Sodas and sweetened juices
* Powdered and instant soups
* Infant formulas
* Sweetened yogurt
* Meal replacement beverages
* Sweetened breakfast cereals
* Packaged soups
* Chicken nuggets.
Ultra-processed foods go through multiple processes, are highly manipulated, and do not contain enough of the beneficial nutrients the body requires. Research has shown that ultra-processed foods make up about 58% of Americans’ diets and are linked to various health issues in women.
Related: Nutritionists Approve These 10 Healthy Processed Foods
What do the studies say?
In the first study published in The British Medical Journal, researchers from Tufts University found that a diet high in ultra-processed foods increases the risk for colorectal cancer in men. The researchers examined data from over 46,000 men from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study and about 160,000 women from two different cohorts of the Nurses’ Health Study. The participants had no cancer diagnoses at the beginning of the research.
The researchers followed up with the participants for 24 -28 years and found 3,216 cases of colorectal cancer in both men and women. What’s noteworthy is that men who ate the most ultra-processed foods reported a 29% higher risk of developing colorectal cancer than those who ate the least ultra-processed foods.
The researchers reported no association between overall ultra-processed food consumption and increased colorectal cancer risk in women. Further research is needed to determine why this is the case.
Additionally, the researchers note that men who ate more meat, poultry, or seafood-based ready-to-eat products and sugar-sweetened beverages had a higher risk of colorectal cancer. Women who ate ready-to-eat and heat-mixed dishes reported a similar risk. Further, the sub-group of processed foods including yogurt and dairy-based desserts elevated the risk of colorectal cancer in women.
The second study, published in The British Medical Journal, analyzed the diets of more than 22,000 people in the Molise region of Italy. The researchers also observed their mortality risk after 14 years of follow-up. In this study, the researchers compared two different ways of looking at diet: the Food Standards Agency Nutrient Profiling System (FSAm-NPS index), which is the traditional way of rating food based on its nutritional content only, and the NOVA scale, an assessment of the degree of food processing.
“The aim was basically to see what type of perspective counts most in terms of defining the long-term risk of mortality of our participants,” explained lead author Dr. Marialaura Bonaccio, senior epidemiologist in the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention at IRCCS Neuromed in Pozzilli, Italy.
The researchers found that the participants with the highest ultra-processed food intake based on the NOVA classification system and the lowest quality diet based on the FSAm-NPS dietary index reported the highest risk for both of all-cause mortality and death due to cardiovascular issues.
“However, when both these food dimensions were taken into account jointly, we found that a higher degree of food processing was more relevant for this increased risk than the poor nutritional quality of the diet,” Dr. Bonaccio added.
These findings confirm that the intake of nutrient-poor or ultra-processed foods independently can greatly increase the risk of death from cardiovascular diseases.
The study authors do note, however, that while they considered the diet scores, nutrition patterns, sex assigned at birth, and race, they did not take the social determinants of health into account.
Related: The Effects of Processed Meat On Our Lungs
The bottom line
The key takeaway from both these new studies is that eating a diet that relies on processed food can be seriously harmful to our health. Previous research has already shown that ultra-processed foods can negatively impact cognitive function. Other studies have found that sugary drinks can increase the risk of colorectal cancer in young people. Another recent study revealed that eating over five ounces (141.7g) of processed meat per week can put you at a higher risk of heart disease and early death.
So, start taking steps to reduce your intake of ultra-processed foods. The best way is to start slow and add some new healthy foods to your diet each week. Over time, you will notice that healthy foods have replaced unhealthy ones. Our article on Healthy Recipe Ideas Without Processed Foods can be beneficial if you are looking to make healthy changes in your diet.
The American Heart Association (AHA) suggests opting for fresh fruits and vegetables whenever possible and cutting out minimizing beverages with added sugars and processed foods from your diet.
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