Packaged snacks and take-out food are part of modern life but can raise the risk for serious diseases. Research shows processed foods and health risks are real.
You know you are supposed to eat a healthy diet rich in vegetables and fruits and low in sugar and salt. But if you are busy with work, family duties, and life in general, it can be tempting and easy to frequently opt for take-out food or a frozen pizza instead.
What you are eating is processed food. And evidence increasingly indicates foods that are heavily processed and health risks are linked in troublesome ways.
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned that Americans are eating far too much highly processed food ― and that’s a major factor contributing to the high rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease in the U.S., according to several studies.
Understanding what “processed” and “ultra-processed” foods are
“Processed foods” is a term that covers a lot of territory, and not all foods that aren’t fresh from the farm carry known health risks.
The Food and Drug Administration defines “processed food” as “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration, or milling.” By this definition, the CDC points out, many grocery store items and foods served in restaurants are considered processed and can include healthy food choices, such as whole-grain bread and frozen vegetables with no added salt or other ingredients.
However, foods that are highly processed, also known as ultra-processed, are another story. They typically contain many added ingredients, are highly manipulated and are the type of foods most cited in research linking foods that are highly processed to specific health risks. Examples of ultra-processed foods include soft drinks, snacks such as packaged cookies and chips, luncheon meats, frozen dinners, and more.
Unfortunately, Americans’ use of packaged and processed types of foods has increased substantially over the past 50 years, according to the CDC. What’s more, a study from a team of University of Sao Paulo and Tufts University researchers, published in BMJ Open, found about 60 percent of Americans’ daily calories come from the ultra-processed foods ― and many are loaded with excess sodium and sugar.
Processed foods and health risks are real
Researchers have documented several links between diets heavy in foods that are ultra-processed and health risks, ranging from cancer to stroke, heart attacks, and type 2 diabetes.
Tufts University cancer epidemiologist Fang Fang Zhang, MD, PhD, who is studying the link between foods in the processed category and health risks, points out evidence is accumulating that excessive consumption of processed meat increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and some cancers.
A study headed by Zhang and published in JNCI Cancer Spectrum, estimated that over 14,500 new cancers studied in 2015 were likely caused by diets high in processed meats.
Moreover, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies processed meat as a human carcinogen, and the American Cancer Society and the World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research have issued recommendations limiting processed meat consumption for cancer prevention.
However, despite these warnings, the amount of processed meat Americans consume has remained unchanged in the past 18 years, according to research published in the Journal of the Academy and Dietetics. “Our findings support further actions to increase public awareness of the health risks associated with high processed meat consumption in the U.S.,” said Zhang, who led the study.
More processed foods and health risks
Two large European studies found a strong association between foods highly processed and cardiovascular disease and death from all causes.
A team of scientists from France and Brazil analyzed the diets of over 105,000 French adults, noting how much processed food was eaten by the research subjects. Then the researchers followed the study participants’ health over the course of a decade.
The results, published in the BMJ, showed a higher amount of ultra-processed food in the diet was associated with significantly higher rates of overall cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cerebrovascular disease. On the other hand, the research team noted a significantly lower risk for those same health conditions in the people who ate more minimally processed or unprocessed foods.
In a another study, also published in the BMJ, researchers based in Spain used a detailed questionnaire to evaluate the diets of almost 20,000 university graduates. The research team kept track of the research subjects’ health for an average of 10 years.
Again, the association between foods that are processed and health risks was significant. The people in the study who consumed the most ultra-processed foods (more than four servings per day) had a 62 percent increased risk of dying from any cause, compared with the research participants who ate an average of fewer than two servings per day of ultra-processed foods.
Overall, eating an additional serving of ultra-processed food daily raised the risk of mortality by about 18 percent.
Bottom line? For health, eat more nutrient-rich foods
Fast foods and handy frozen meals may be quick and even tasty, but relying on them regularly and skipping whole and nutritious foods can be a significant health risk, not only because of what they contain but also because of what they don’t contain.
In addition to unhealthy levels of sodium and other additives, the connection between foods that are heavily processed and health risks may be the result of people not eating enough foods containing nutrients crucial for health, too.
A study from Tufts and Cambridge researchers, published in JAMA, concluded that what people ate regularly was strongly associated with heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. But while frequently eating foods in the ultra-processed category was connected to the risk of those diseases, the research also suggests that by relying on foods of the processed type, people are not eating enough fruits, vegetables, seafood, and other foods rich in important nutrients. And that could be a factor connecting health risks with diets heavy with foods that are processed.
September 13, 2019
Janet O’Dell RN