Rebecca Oshiro, MS, CN, Arivale Coach
A new study of tens of thousands adults found nearly one-third of their calories came from ultra-processed foods. That’s a major concern, as the study concludes ultra-processed foods are significantly associated with an increased risk of early death.
Ultra-processed foods – soda, snack cakes, frozen pizza, hot dogs, candy, and those bright orange “cheese-flavored” puffs – are foods that have been highly refined and contain multiple chemical additives; have little, if any, ingredients normally used in home cooking; and lack any intact, unprocessed components.
In the study published this month in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers looked at approximately 45,000 French adults 45 and older. The participants, 73 percent of whom were women, were initially studied in 2009 when baseline dietary records and other data were collected. They were followed prospectively for an average of 7.1 years with ongoing data collection.
At baseline, ultra-processed foods made up 29.1 percent of total calorie intake. Consumption of ultra-processed foods was higher in people who were younger, had lower socioeconomic status, had a higher Body Mass Index, and were less physically active.
The researchers then gathered data from French death records and looked at the association between ultra-processed food intake and overall mortality. After adjusting for other risk factors, overall risk of death was significantly associated with higher consumption of ultra-processed foods: a 14 percent increase in mortality for every additional 10 percent increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet.
It’s not really a surprise that ultra-processed foods are bad for you – even to the point of ultimately killing you. Previous studies have noted that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with greater body weight and other health problems. And, the reasons are fairly clear: in general, ultra-processed foods are high in sugar, fat, salt, and chemicals and very low in essential vitamins and minerals.
But, knowing this doesn’t really address the problem, as evidenced by the fact that ultra-processed foods make up roughly two-thirds of the American diet – dramatically more than that of the French adults in the study.
As noted by CNN in a story about the new study, the fundamental issue is that “we are living in a fast world, and people are looking for convenient solutions. We are always stretched for time.” Furthermore, the observation that people with lower incomes ate greater amounts of ultra-processed foods points to another issue: these foods are often cheap.
There are solutions to both of these problems, but it takes persistence and, ideally, support from a knowledgeable nutrition professional. You can employ shortcuts to make prepping healthy home-cooked meals easier, including downloading meal-planning apps, buying pre-cut veggies, or using a slow cooker. And, meals based on whole foods like rice and beans, as well as non-exotic fruits and vegetables, can be comparable in price to some ultra-processed foods and will get you a lot more nutritional value for your dollar.
It’s not necessary to completely eliminate ultra-processed foods – an occasional treat or convenience food when you’re running late is a normal part of modern life. But, stop to consider if it’s worth a bit of extra time and effort to prioritize your health, and see if you can reduce the amount of ultra-processed foods in your diet. Even a 10 percent reduction could make a big difference in your health and longevity.
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[Arivale Hot Topics address health stories currently in the news. The Arivale Clinical Team’s commentary on these news articles is not a review of the scientific evidence, nor an endorsement of a specific study, and is not meant as official medical opinion.]