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Health risks of ultra-processed foods revealed in 30-year study

A comprehensive 30-year study in the United States has shed light on the potential health risks associated with the consumption of ultra-processed foods.

This extensive research, recently published in the journal The BMJ, reveals a slight increase in the risk of premature death linked to the intake of these foods.

Notably, ready-to-eat meat, poultry, seafood products, sugary drinks, dairy-based desserts, and highly processed breakfast foods were identified as having the strongest associations with increased mortality rates.

What are ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed foods are typically high in energy, added sugars, saturated fats, and salt. They often include packaged baked goods, snacks, fizzy drinks, sugary cereals, and ready-to-eat or heat products.

These foods generally contain additives like colors, emulsifiers, and flavors, but lack essential nutrients such as vitamins and fiber. Moreover, the allure of convenience they offer masks the potential health risks they carry.

“Ultra-processed foods, which are typically of low nutritional quality and high energy density, have been dominating the food supply of high income countries, and their consumption is markedly increasing in middle income countries,” noted the study authors.

Impact of ultra-processed foods on long-term health

The researchers followed the long-term health of over 114,000 health professionals across the U.S. who were free from cancer, cardiovascular diseases, or diabetes at the start of the study.

Detailed health and lifestyle data were collected biennially, and dietary information was assessed every four years using the Alternative Healthy Eating Index-2010 (AHEI) score.

After a follow-up period averaging 34 years, the study documented 48,193 deaths – attributing 13,557 to cancer and 11,416 to cardiovascular diseases, among others.

Participants in the highest quartile of ultra-processed food intake (averaging seven servings per day) exhibited a 4% higher risk of overall death and a 9% increased risk of deaths from causes other than cancer, cardiovascular, and respiratory diseases, compared to those consuming the least.

Interestingly, no significant links were found between ultra-processed food intake and deaths from cardiovascular diseases, cancer, or respiratory diseases.

The authors also noted that the association between ultra-processed food consumption and mortality was less pronounced when overall dietary quality was considered.

Interpreting the findings with precision

Despite these findings, the researchers caution against overly simplistic dietary recommendations, emphasizing that not all ultra-processed foods should be universally restricted.

The experts advocate for a nuanced approach, suggesting that future studies should refine the classification of ultra-processed foods to better understand their health impacts.

Additionally, the study’s predominantly white, health-professional participant base may limit the generalizability of the findings.

Avoid ultra-processed foods for better health

In a linked editorial, researchers from New Zealand highlighted that while avoiding ultra-processed foods is beneficial, it shouldn’t overshadow the need for broader food policies.

Furthermore, they argue for stronger measures like marketing restrictions on unhealthy foods to children, warning labels on nutritionally poor products, and taxes on sugary drinks.

The goal is to advocate for more robust global food policies that align with public health and environmental sustainability, without being compromised by the interests of multinational food companies.

Healthier future

The study concludes that limiting certain types of ultra-processed foods could significantly enhance long-term health outcomes. It emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between various forms of these foods and advocates for a more comprehensive classification to inform dietary recommendations effectively.

The researchers urge for more extensive studies that include diverse populations to provide a broader understanding of how different demographics may be affected by ultra-processed food consumption.

As our knowledge of ultra-processed foods and their potential health effects continues to evolve, so too should our strategies for maintaining a healthy diet amidst the modern challenges of convenience and fast-paced lifestyles. The allure of ultra-processed foods often lies in their affordability and ease of preparation, making them an attractive option for many.

However, it’s essential to balance this convenience with health considerations, prioritizing nutrient-rich, minimally processed foods wherever possible. By rethinking our approach to diet and nutrition, individuals and policymakers can work together to create a healthier food environment that aligns with public health goals while still accommodating the realities of modern living.

The study is published in the journal The BMJ.


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