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Harmful Health Effects Linked To Ultra Processed Foods

1 month, 4 weeks ago

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Posted on Mar 21, 2024, 4 p.m.

This large review published in the BMJ involved experts from a number of leading institutions, including Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the US, the University of Sydney, and Sorbonne University in France.

The authors concluded that: “Overall, direct associations were found between exposure to ultra-processed foods and 32 health parameters spanning mortality, cancer, and mental, respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and metabolic health outcomes.” Adding that “Greater exposure to ultra-processed food was associated with a higher risk of adverse health outcomes, especially cardiometabolic, common mental disorders and mortality outcomes.

“These findings provide a rationale to develop and evaluate the effectiveness of using population-based and public-health measures to target and reduce dietary exposure to ultra-processed foods for improved human health.”

In the United States of America and the United Kingdom, more than half of the average diet consists of ultra-processed foods (UPF), and for some people who are younger, poorer, or from disadvantaged areas their diet can typically contain as much as 80% ultra-processed foods. This comprehensive review of evidence comes amid the rapidly increasing global consumption of ultra-processed foods such as protein bars, ready-made meals, fast food, fizzy drinks, junk food, and cereals. 

UPFs tend to be high in added sugars, fats, and/or salt while being low in nutritional value, which includes fizzy drinks, junk food, packaged baked goods, snacks, sugary cereals, ready-to-eat meals, and fast foods, undergo multiple industrial processes and they most often contain added coloring, flavors, additives, and emulsifiers. 

Overall, the findings from this study which involved 9.9 million people consistently highlight the importance of adopting measures to target and reduce exposure/reliance on UPF, revealing direct links to 32 harmful effects on health, including a higher risk of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, adverse mental health, and early death. 

Their convincing evidence from the analysis of 45 distinct pooled meta-analyses from 14 review articles associating UPF with adverse health outcomes showed that a higher intake of ultra-processed foods was associated with a 50% increased risk of cardiovascular disease-related death, a 48-53% higher risk of anxiety and other common mental disorders, and a 12% greater risk of type 2 diabetes. 

The analysis also indicates that higher intake was associated with a 21% greater risk of death from any cause, a 40-66% increased risk of heart disease-related death, type 2 diabetes, obesity, sleep problems, and a 22% increased risk of depression. 

Associations were also found between UPFs and asthma, gastrointestinal health, certain cancers, and cardiometabolic risk factors like high levels of blood fats and low levels of good cholesterol. 

Although the nature of observation research is not without limitations and it is not able to prove absolute cause and effect Dr. Chris van Tulleken, an associate professor at University College London and one of the world’s leading UPF experts, said the findings were “entirely consistent” with a now “enormous number of independent studies which clearly link a diet high in UPF to multiple damaging health outcomes including early death”.

“We have good understanding of the mechanisms by which these foods drive harm,” added Tulleken. “In part, it is because of their poor nutritional profile – they are often high in saturated fat, salt, and free sugar. But the way they are processed is also important – they’re engineered and marketed in ways which drive excess consumption – for example, they are typically soft and energy dense and aggressively marketed usually to disadvantaged communities.”

In an editorial, experts from Brazil said that ultra-processed foods are “often chemically manipulated cheap ingredients” and “made palatable and attractive by using combinations of flavours, colours, emulsifiers, thickeners, and other additives”. Going on to add that “It is now time for UN agencies, with member states, to develop and implement a framework convention on ultra-processed foods analogous to the framework on tobacco.”

Supporting findings from this study, another separate study published in the Lancet Public Health indicates that over 9,000 heart disease-related deaths could be prevented in England over the next twenty years if all restaurants, cafes, pubs, drive-thru, and fast-food outlets put calories/energy labeling on their menus. 

As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before changing your wellness routine. This article is not intended to provide a medical diagnosis, recommendation, treatment, or endorsement. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. 

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