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Consuming ultra-processed foods is associated with a higher risk of developing or succumbing to various health issues

Consuming ultra-processed foods is associated with a higher risk of developing or succumbing to various health issues, according to a recent review of 45 meta-analyses involving nearly 10 million individuals.

"We found consistent evidence linking higher intakes of ultra-processed foods with over 70% of the 45 different health outcomes we assessed," said Wolfgang Marx, a senior research fellow at Deakin University's Food & Mood Centre in Geelong, Australia.

Researchers defined a higher intake as roughly one serving or about 10% more ultra-processed foods per day, noted Heinz Freisling, a scientist at the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Lead author Dr. Melissa Lane, a postdoctoral research fellow at Deakin, emphasized that a higher intake of ultra-processed foods was associated with approximately 50% higher risk of cardiovascular disease-related death and common mental disorders.

The study, published in The BMJ journal, revealed convincing evidence that higher intake of ultra-processed foods was associated with 50% increased risk of cardiovascular disease-related death, a 48% to 53% higher risk of anxiety and common mental disorders, and a 12% greater risk of type 2 diabetes.

"Highly suggestive" evidence indicated a 21% greater risk of death from any cause; a 40% to 66% increased risk of heart disease-related death, obesity, type 2 diabetes and sleep problems; and a 22% increased risk of depression.

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"It's not surprising that there are a lot of studies that point to a positive association between ultra-processed food consumption and the risk of various disease outcomes," remarked Fang Fang Zhang, an associate professor at Tufts University in Boston.

Zhang highlighted that ultra-processed foods are typically high in calories, added sugar, sodium, and low in fiber, factors known to contribute to various health issues like weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension.

While evidence was strong for several adverse health outcomes, the study found mixed impact on some conditions. Obesity, sleep disorders, type 2 diabetes, and depression showed a significant increase in risk with higher ultra-processed food consumption. However, the evidence was limited for associations with asthma, gastrointestinal health, and certain cardiometabolic risk factors such as high blood fats and low levels of "good" high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.

Surprisingly, the study found only suggestive or no evidence for an association between ultra-processed foods and cancer, contrary to previous research indicating a link between ultra-processed food consumption and cancer risk.

Mathilde Touvier, a research director at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, stressed the need for more comprehensive studies to strengthen the evidence base regarding the relationship between ultra-processed foods and cancer.

Ultra-processed foods, as defined by Dr. Carlos Monteiro, a nutrition researcher at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, are formulations containing chemically manipulated cheap ingredients, often lacking whole foods.

Monteiro's NOVA classification system categorizes ultra-processed foods as those made with artificial flavors, colors, thickeners, and additives linked to gut microbiota imbalances and systemic inflammation.

"Since Monteiro’s definition of ultra-processed food appeared, nutritionists, researchers, and public health officials have grown concerned about the increasing prevalence of such foods worldwide," said Dr. Monteiro.

As ultra-processed foods become more ubiquitous, public health experts emphasize the importance of strategies to reduce their consumption for improved overall health.

"It’s like when we invented cars," commented Zhang. "Yes, they bring us convenience, but if we use a car for everything and we don’t exercise we have problems. We need new strategies to bring down the consumption of ultra-processed food to a healthier level."

Reducing ultra-processed foods in one's diet can have numerous health benefits. Here are some strategies to help people minimize their consumption of ultra-processed foods:

Cook at home: Cooking meals from scratch using whole, unprocessed ingredients allows you to have control over what goes into your food and reduces reliance on packaged or pre-prepared foods.

Read labels: Pay attention to food labels and ingredient lists. Avoid products with lengthy ingredient lists containing unfamiliar or unpronounceable ingredients, excessive additives, sugars, and unhealthy fats.

Choose whole foods: Opt for whole, minimally processed foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, lean meats, and fish. These foods are typically nutrient-dense and provide essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Limit sugary beverages: Reduce consumption of sugary drinks like sodas, energy drinks, and sweetened teas. Opt for water, herbal teas, or naturally flavored water instead.

Snack smart: Instead of reaching for packaged snacks like chips, cookies, or candy, choose healthier alternatives such as fresh fruit, vegetables with hummus or guacamole, nuts, or homemade trail mix.

Plan meals ahead: Take time to plan your meals and snacks for the week. This can help you make healthier choices and reduce the temptation to grab convenience foods when you're hungry and pressed for time.

Be mindful of portion sizes: Even healthy foods can contribute to excess calorie intake if consumed in large portions. Pay attention to portion sizes and practice mindful eating to avoid overeating.

Educate yourself: Learn about nutrition and food processing techniques to make informed choices about the foods you eat. Understanding the impact of ultra-processed foods on health can motivate you to make healthier choices.

Gradual transition: Making drastic changes to your diet all at once can be challenging. Instead, gradually replace ultra-processed foods with healthier alternatives to make the transition more sustainable.

Seek support: If you find it difficult to reduce ultra-processed foods in your diet, consider seeking support from friends, family, or a registered dietitian. They can provide encouragement, accountability, and practical tips to help you achieve your goals.

Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.

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Joseph Shavit
Joseph ShavitSpace, Technology and Medical News Writer
Joseph Shavit is the head science news writer with a passion for communicating complex scientific discoveries to a broad audience. With a strong background in both science, business, product management, media leadership and entrepreneurship, Joseph possesses the unique ability to bridge the gap between business and technology, making intricate scientific concepts accessible and engaging to readers of all backgrounds.