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More Data Suggests 'Ultraprocessed' Foods Can Shorten Your Life
  • Posted May 9, 2024

More Data Suggests 'Ultraprocessed' Foods Can Shorten Your Life

People who eat large amounts of ultra-processed foods have a slightly higher risk of premature death than those who mostly shun the industrially produced eats, a new 30-year study says.

Those who ate the most ultra-processed foods – an average of seven servings a day – had a 4% higher risk of death overall, and a 9% higher risk of death from causes other than cancer or heart disease.

These higher risks of death “were mainly driven by meat/poultry/seafood based ready-to-eat products, sugar and artificially sweetened beverages, dairy based desserts, and ultra-processed breakfast foods,” wrote the team led by senior researcher Mingyang Song, an associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

Ultra-processed foods are made mostly from substances extracted from whole foods, like saturated fats, starches and added sugars. They also contain a wide variety of additives to make them more tasty, attractive and shelf-stable, including colors, emulsifiers, flavors and stabilizers.

Examples include packaged baked goods, sugary cereals, ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat products, and deli cold cuts, researchers said.

Mounting evidence has linked these foods to higher risks of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and bowel cancer, researchers said. However, few long-term studies have examined these products' links to a person's overall risk of death.

For this study, researchers tracked the long-term health of nearly 75,000 female registered nurses and nearly 40,000 male health professionals.

Both groups took part in separate health studies that ran from the mid-1980s to 2018. Every two years, participants provided information on their health and lifestyle habits, and every four years they completed a detailed food questionnaire.

During an average 34-year follow-up period, researchers identified more than 48,000 deaths.

Although increased consumption of ultra-processed foods was linked to a higher risk of death, researchers noted that the association became less pronounced after they took a person's overall dietary quality into account.

The study found that dietary quality had a greater influence on risk of early death than did consumption of ultra-processed foods.

That could mean that eating lots of healthy whole foods might offset the detrimental effects of ultra-processed chow, researchers said.

“The findings provide support for limiting consumption of certain types of ultra-processed food for long term health,” the team concluded, adding that “future studies are warranted to improve the classification of ultra-processed foods and confirm our findings in other populations.”

In an editorial accompanying the study, experts pointed out that recommendations to avoid ultra-processed foods might give the idea that certain whole but unhealthy foods like red meat are fine to eat often.

The study and editorial appear in the BMJ.

More information

Harvard Medical School has more about ultraprocessed foods.

SOURCE: BMJ, news release, May 8, 2024

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