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“High Intake of Ultra-Processed Foods Linked to 32 Negative Health Conditions, Including Heart Disease and Cancer”

High Intake of Ultra-Processed Foods Linked to 32 Negative Health Conditions, Including Heart Disease and Cancer

Ultra-processed foods have long been a staple in the American diet, but new research suggests that these convenient and inexpensive options may come at a high cost to our health. A recent study published in The BMJ reveals that a high intake of ultra-processed foods is associated with an increased risk of 32 adverse health outcomes, including heart disease, cancer, mental health disorders, and even early death.

The study, which involved an umbrella review of 45 meta-analyses from 14 articles, examined the association between ultra-processed foods and negative health outcomes. With nearly 10 million participants, the researchers found consistent evidence linking high consumption of ultra-processed foods to a wide range of diseases and conditions.

Among the health risks identified were a 50% increased risk of deaths related to cardiovascular disease, a 12% higher risk of type 2 diabetes, and a 48% to 53% higher risk of anxiety and mental disorders. The researchers also reported an association between ultra-processed foods and all causes of mortality, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, asthma, hypertension, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, obesity, metabolic syndrome, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and hyperglycemia, among others.

So what exactly are ultra-processed foods? These include items such as instant noodles, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, ready-to-eat meals, sugary cereal, packaged baked goods, snacks, and soft drinks. These foods undergo numerous industrial processes and often contain chemically modified substances extracted from other foods. They are typically high in salt, sugar, and fat, low in vitamins and fiber, and lack whole foods.

Dana Hunnes, PhD, a senior clinical dietician at the UCLA Medical Center, explains that ultra-processed foods are essentially stripped of their nutritional value and are mainly of industrial origin. She warns that these foods are not only detrimental to our health but also addictive due to their hyperpalatable flavors and ingredients. Hunnes emphasizes the importance of gradually replacing ultra-processed foods with healthier, whole-food alternatives.

Unfortunately, ultra-processed foods make up a significant portion of the American diet. About 73% of the food supply in the United States consists of ultra-processed foods, and research suggests that more than 60% of daily energy intake comes from these products. The appeal of ultra-processed foods lies in their convenience, affordability, and accessibility.

Christopher Gardner, PhD, a nutrition researcher at Stanford University, acknowledges that while some ultra-processed foods may be healthier options compared to others, it is crucial to make informed choices. He suggests that individuals should consider switching out minimally processed foods instead of opting for ultra-processed alternatives. For example, choosing a grilled chicken sandwich with a fruit cup and water or low-fat milk over a burger, fries, and soda when eating out.

Experts also recommend making more meals at home as a way to improve dietary habits. Lauri Wright, PhD, the president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, advises planning meals in advance, batch cooking, and utilizing convenient cooking methods such as an instant pot or slow cooker. She suggests making homemade kale chips, roasting chickpeas, snacking on nuts instead of chips, and opting for healthier alternatives to satisfy a sweet tooth.

The findings of this study highlight the urgent need for action to reduce dietary exposure to ultra-processed foods. The researchers call for comprehensive population-based strategies, government-led policy frameworks, and dietary guidelines aimed at targeting and reducing the consumption of these harmful products. By making small changes to our diets and opting for whole, minimally processed foods, we can take control of our health and reduce the risks associated with high intake of ultra-processed foods.


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