Ultra-processed Foods Linked to Chronic Disease

Ultra-processed foods predict increased risk of cancer, hypertension, and weight gain

Eat better, live better

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) typically include industrial formulations of five or more ingredients. Key items comprise salt, sugar, fats, flavors, and colors. Common UPFs include candies, mass-produced breads, energy bars, sugar-sweetened drinks, and most snack foods. People who consume high levels of UPFs tend to have relatively poor diets with high amounts of fat, sugar, salt, and minimal fiber. Plus additives, perhaps safe individually, might interact in unknown ways to adversely affect health. Materials used to package UPFs contain potentially harmful chemicals that may leach into food. Finally, food processing and heating can produce contaminants that might be carcinogenic.

Unsurprisingly, cross-sectional studies link abundant UPFs with chronic diseases. Recent longitudinal and randomized trial studies confirm previous cross-sectional research for cancer, hypertension, and obesity. In the following three studies, researchers determined the abundances of UPFs using the NOVA classification. It places specific foods in one of four categories ranging from "unprocessed" to “ultra-processed.”

Researchers in France used data from the NurtiNet-Sante longitudinal study to investigate whether high consumption of UPFs predicted greater risk of developing cancer. The study involved 104,980 participants cancer-free at baseline with an average age of 43 years who were followed for a median of 5 years. Participants in the highest quartile of UPFs had a 21 percent higher risk of developing cancer during follow-up. Each 10 percent increase in UPF intake predicted a 12 percent increased risk of cancer. These results accounted for a host of confounding factors. Thus, minimizing ultra-processed foods in your diet may reduce your risk of cancer.

Hypertension harms your health directly and increases risk of cardiovascular diseases. Risk factors for hypertension include an unhealthy diet, especially excess salt, high saturated fat, and insufficient fruits and vegetables. UPFs typically contain high amounts of salt and saturated fat. Thus, researchers in Spain studied whether diets with lots of UPFs predicted increased risk of developing hypertension. Participants included 14,790 college graduates with an average age of 36 years. During 9.1 years of follow-up, 1,702 participants developed hypertension. Compared to participants in the lowest one-third of UPF consumption, participants in the highest one-third had a 21 percent higher risk of developing hypertension during follow-up. Researchers controlled for factors that might be related to hypertension, such as sex, age, medical history, body-mass index, and lifestyle attributes. If you adopt the healthy choice of Eat Better, you may reduce your risk of developing hypertension and, by extension, cardiovascular diseases.

A recent randomized, controlled trial tested whether UPFs lead to excessive food intake and obesity. Participants included 28 weight-stable young adults who were in-patients for 4 weeks at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. Participants ate either an unprocessed food diet or UPF diet for two weeks followed by the alternate diet. Meals were matched in terms of calories, energy density, sugar, salt, and fiber. Food intake was unrestricted. Intake of both carbohydrate and fat but not protein increased with the UPF diet. Participants ate 508 more calories per day on the UPF diet compared to the unprocessed food diet. Participants on the UPF diet grained 0.9 kg (one pound) but lost 0.9 kg (one pound) on the unprocessed diet. Eat better by cutting back of ultra-processed foods to help prevent weight gain and reduce your risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, hypertension, and obesity.

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