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Ultra-Processed Foods Linked to 32 Harmful Health Effects, Study Shows

March 1, 2024

Ultra-processed foods are directly linked to cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease – at least 32 harmful effects to health, according to a new comprehensive review of research.

The report, published in The BMJ, was based on a review of 45 existing studies, assessing the potential health effects of ultra-processed foods (UPFs). The study, which took into account 9.8 million participants, examined the amount of UPFs participants ate and whether they developed health problems.

The review defined UPFs as industrially produced foods made from chemically modified ingredients and additives rather than whole foods, such as packaged snacks, carbonated soft drinks, instant noodles, and ready-made meals.

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The review of studies found links between consuming UPFs and 32 health issues, including a higher risk of early death, as well as cancer and mental, respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and metabolic problems.

A 10% increase in UPF consumption was tied to a 12% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, the report noted.

Seven studies in the review found a direct link between eating more UPFs and the risk of colorectal cancer, while six studies found that the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, including heart attacks, increased the more UPF participants consumed.

Though limited, there was also evidence for associations between higher UPF consumption and asthma, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and other cancers, including breast, prostate, and pancreatic cancers, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and central nervous system tumors.

“The prevalence of ultra-processed foods in the American diet is complex, intertwined with our food system’s capitalist foundations, mass media, food subsidies, and a lack of widespread education on sustainable, healthful eating practices,” functional dietitian Haley Schroth tells Clean Plates. “However, change is possible, and it can start with each of us taking mindful steps toward adjusting our dietary habits.”

More than 70% of packaged foods sold in the U.S. is ultra-processed foods, research shows, making it very difficult to avoid them altogether. But it’s possible to maintain a healthy diet with some specific steps, Schroth says. 

“It’s crucial to remember that we have the power to influence our food system,” she says. “If we have the means, supporting local and sustainable farms and starting small by growing some of our food can significantly impact our health and the planet. These actions reduce our reliance on ultra-processed foods and help foster a more sustainable and health-conscious food system.”

Schroth also encourages people to be mindful when meal planning. “While some ultra-processed foods may serve a purpose, like providing convenient nutrition for athletes or meeting our basic need for calories in the case of poverty, there are healthier alternatives,” she says. “Begin by assessing your diet and identifying simple swaps — opt for whole, unprocessed foods wherever possible. For example, if you’re eating tortillas regularly, swap the highly processed ones for fresh, local options, often available in the refrigerated section of grocery stores.”

If it seems overwhelming, Schroth suggests beginning one plate at a time. “By filling half of your plate with tasty vegetables and pairing them with a whole-food carbohydrate source like potatoes or rice and a protein, you’ll dramatically decrease your ultra-processed food intake and enjoy healthier, more satiating meals,” she says. “Each small step toward reducing our intake of ultra-processed foods contributes to a more significant movement toward a healthier, more sustainable food system. Together, we can redefine what it means to eat healthily in an ultra-processed world.”

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