Ultra-Processed Foods Linked to Higher Risk of Multiple Health Conditions

Scientists found that certain 'junk foods' were associated with a higher risk of developing more than one chronic health condition, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) often contain added sugar, unhealthy fats, preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, and other additives. These food items also undergo a complex production process to create a highly palatable product.

Some research suggests that this high palatability may lead to addictive behaviors, making it difficult for some people to abstain from consuming these highly processed foods. Moreover, a 2019 study found that over 60% of calories adults consume in the United States come from UPFs.

In addition, scientists have found evidence linking ultra-processed food consumption to an elevated risk of cancer, depression, and cognitive decline. Because these foods are often high in calories, they can also lead to weight gain.

Though researchers have previously identified links between ultra-processed food consumption and specific health conditions, scientists from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC-WHO) in Lyon, France, decided to look into whether a higher intake of these foods leads to the development of two or more chronic diseases, also known as multimorbidity.

Their research, published on November 13 in The Lancet Regional Health Europe, suggests that consuming higher amounts of some types of ultra-processed foods may be linked to multimorbidity of cancer and cardiometabolic diseases.

Scientists collected food intake data between 1992 and 2000 from 266,666 participants in seven European countries to conduct the study. At the start of the study, participants listed what types of food they consumed in the previous 12 months.

The researchers then analyzed the participants' food choices using the NOVA classification system, which identifies how foods are made.

They also followed the participants for 11 years to determine who developed chronic health conditions.

After analysis, the team found that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a heightened risk of having one or more health conditions, including cancer, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Specifically, sugar-sweetened drinks, artificially sweetened beverages, animal-based products, and spreads and condiments were associated with a higher risk of co-occurring health conditions.

However, ultra-processed bread, cereals, sweets and desserts, savory snacks, plant-based alternatives, ready-to-eat/heat, and mixed dishes were not associated with multimorbidity risks.

In a statement, Tim Chico, M.D., who was not involved in the research, said, "The study found that people who reported eating more UPF had higher rates of diseases in later years, which is in keeping with a lot of other evidence about the relationships between poor diet and future health."

Chico is a Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine and Honorary Consultant Cardiologist at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom.

"It cannot prove conclusively that the UPF is the direct cause of the diseases, but taken with all the other scientific evidence, it is very likely that some types of UPF do increase the risk of later disease, either because they are directly harmful or because they replace healthier foods such as vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, olive oils, etc.," Chico adds.

What are some examples of ultra-processed foods?

Some examples of ultra-processed foods to avoid include:

  • Ham
  • Sausage
  • Ice Cream
  • Carbonated drinks
  • Fruit-flavored yogurts
  • Instant soup
  • Sweetened breakfast cereals
  • Chips

The takeaway

Although the study included data from over 250,000 participants in several European countries, it did have some limitations. First, the participants' dietary data was collected over 20 years ago and may not reflect current food processing methods or ingredients.

In addition, though the scientists collected diet and lifestyle data at the study's onset, they did not consider potential lifestyle changes that could have occurred during the 11-year follow-up.

"Research like this is very important. However, we already know fairly well what we should be eating (and doing) to reduce our risk of disease," Chico explained. "We also know [that] not enough [people know how to] achieve this. We are facing a growing epidemic of poor health. The most important question is, what should we do about it?"

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