Study Finds Ultra-Processed Foods Up the Odds of Developing Multiple Health Problems

Scientists have discovered that consuming certain unhealthy foods, often referred to as ‘junk foods,’ is associated with an increased risk of developing multiple chronic health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.

These foods, known as ultra-processed foods (UPFs), are often loaded with added sugars, unhealthy fats, preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, and various additives. They also undergo a complex industrial process to create highly palatable products. Some research suggests that this high palatability may lead to addictive behaviors, making it challenging for individuals to control their consumption of these heavily processed foods.

Furthermore, a 2019 study revealed that over 60% of the calories consumed by adults in the United States come from UPFs. Additionally, scientists have uncovered evidence linking UPF consumption to an elevated risk of cancer, depression, and cognitive decline. Due to their often high calorie content, these foods can also contribute to weight gain.

While researchers have previously identified associations between UPF consumption and specific health conditions, scientists from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC-WHO) in Lyon, France, embarked on a study to investigate whether a higher intake of these foods leads to the development of two or more chronic diseases, collectively known as multimorbidity.

The study, published in The Lancet Regional Health Europe on November 13, followed over 266,000 people in seven European countries for 11 years. Researchers found that people who ate more ultra-processed foods were more likely to develop multiple chronic diseases. Specifically, sugar-sweetened drinks, artificially sweetened beverages, animal-based products, and spreads and condiments were linked to a higher risk of multimorbidity. However, ultra-processed bread, cereals, sweets and desserts, savory snacks, plant-based alternatives, ready-to-eat/heat, and mixed dishes were not associated with an increased risk of multimorbidity.

A cardiologist who was not involved in the study, Dr. Tim Chico, commented on the findings, stating that the study’s results align with existing evidence linking a poor diet to future health issues. He emphasized that while the study cannot definitively establish a direct causal link between ultra-processed foods and chronic diseases, it strongly suggests that certain types of ultra-processed foods likely increase the risk of developing these diseases, either due to their direct harmful effects or their displacement of healthier food choices like vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and olive oils.

List of ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods are foods that have undergone extensive industrial processing, often involving the addition of numerous ingredients such as preservatives, emulsifiers, and artificial flavors. These foods are typically high in calories, unhealthy fats, added sugars, and sodium, and low in nutrients.

Here are some examples of ultra-processed foods:

  • Sweetened breakfast cereals: These cereals are often fortified with vitamins and minerals, but they are also high in sugar and unhealthy fats.

  • Packaged snacks: These snacks, such as chips, cookies, and crackers, are high in calories, sodium, and unhealthy fats.

  • Sugary drinks: These drinks, such as soda, juice, and energy drinks, are high in sugar and calories and can contribute to weight gain and other health problems.

  • Processed meats: These meats, such as hot dogs, sausages, and bacon, are high in sodium and unhealthy fats and can increase the risk of heart disease and cancer.

  • Frozen meals: These meals are often high in calories, sodium, and unhealthy fats, and they are low in nutrients.

  • Fast food: Fast food is typically high in calories, sodium, and unhealthy fats, and it is low in nutrients.

  • Candy: Candy is high in sugar and calories and can contribute to weight gain and other health problems.

  • Ice cream: Ice cream is high in sugar and calories and can contribute to weight gain and other health problems.

  • White bread: White bread is low in fiber and nutrients and can contribute to weight gain and other health problems.

  • French fries: French fries are high in unhealthy fats and sodium and can contribute to weight gain and other health problems.

It is important to limit your intake of ultra-processed foods and focus on eating whole, unprocessed foods instead. Whole foods are naturally low in calories, unhealthy fats, and added sugars, and they are high in nutrients.

How to know a food is junk and unhealthy

Determining whether a food is considered “junk” or unhealthy depends on various factors, including its nutritional value, processing level, and overall impact on your health. Here are some key indicators to help you identify unhealthy foods:

  1. High in Unhealthy Fats: Look for foods that are high in saturated and trans fats, which can raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Examples include fried foods, processed meats, and full-fat dairy products.

  2. Added Sugars: Avoid foods with high amounts of added sugars, which can contribute to weight gain, tooth decay, and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Examples include sugary drinks, desserts, and processed snacks.

  3. Low in Nutrients: Prioritize foods that are rich in essential nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Avoid foods that are mostly empty calories, providing little nutritional value.

  4. Highly Processed: Be wary of highly processed foods, which have undergone extensive industrial processing and often contain added ingredients like preservatives, emulsifiers, and artificial flavors. These foods are typically high in calories, unhealthy fats, and added sugars, and low in nutrients.

  5. Limited Whole Ingredients: Look for foods that contain mostly whole, unprocessed ingredients. These foods are generally more nutritious and provide more fiber and essential vitamins and minerals.

Here are some additional tips to identify unhealthy foods:

  • Check the Nutrition Facts Label: Pay attention to the serving size, calories, and amounts of unhealthy fats, added sugars, and sodium.

  • Limit Packaged and Pre-made Foods: Favor whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.

  • Cook More at Home: Cooking at home allows you to control the ingredients and avoid unhealthy additives found in processed foods.

  • Read Ingredient Lists: Look for foods with short ingredient lists and recognizable ingredients. Avoid foods with long lists of unfamiliar or artificial ingredients.

  • Be Mindful of Marketing and Advertising: Be cautious of marketing claims that promise quick weight loss or health benefits. These claims often lack scientific backing and may promote unhealthy products.

Conclusion

While the study’s large sample size and diverse population across European countries add strength to its findings, it is not without limitations. The dietary data collected from participants dates back over two decades, potentially not accurately reflecting current food processing practices and ingredient profiles. Additionally, the study’s focus on diet and lifestyle factors at the outset may overlook potential lifestyle changes that could have influenced health outcomes during the 11-year follow-up period.

Dr. Chico acknowledges the significance of such research but emphasizes that the fundamental principles of a healthy lifestyle, including dietary choices and overall habits, are well established. The challenge lies in effectively translating this knowledge into widespread adoption, as the prevalence of poor health continues to rise. Identifying practical solutions to bridge this gap between knowledge and action is paramount to addressing this growing health crisis.


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