What are the risks of ultra-processed foods? 

A recent study published in The BMJ has found evidence that a high consumption of ultra-processed foods versus a low intake could elevate the risk of anxiety by up to 53% and increase the likelihood of premature death from any cause by 20%.

The study reviewed 45 meta-analyses involving almost 10 million people highlights the increased risks of various adverse health conditions linked to consuming ultra-processed foods.

Each study in the review, all published within the past three years, was evaluated for its evidence credibility, ranging from strong to no evidence. Notably, none of the studies received funding from companies involved in the production of ultra-processed foods.

Furthermore, researchers found highly suggestive evidence linking increased consumption of ultra-processed foods to a 55% higher risk of obesity, a 41% higher risk of sleep disorders, a 40% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and a 20% higher risk of depression.

However, evidence regarding the association between ultra-processed foods and asthma, gastrointestinal health, and cardiometabolic risk factors such as high blood fats and low levels of “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol was either limited or inconclusive.

Surprisingly, the analysis only found suggestive or no evidence regarding the link between ultra-processed foods and cancer, which contrasts with previous research on this topic.

To minimize the consumption of ultra-processed foods, experts suggest opting for real, minimally processed foods cooked at home, although they acknowledge the difficulty of this, as over 70% of the US food supply consists of ultra-processed foods.

The researchers noted that public health agencies and governments may need to implement regulations such as front-of-pack warning labels, restrictions on advertising (especially to children), and the prohibition of ultra-processed food sales in or near schools and hospitals. This should be accompanied by making minimally processed foods more affordable and accessible.

In the meantime, they recommend that people can reduce their own consumption of  ultra-processed foods by: 

  • Reading and comparing product labels, choosing less processed alternatives whenever possible.
  • Adding fresh, frozen, or canned fruits, vegetables, beans, and legumes to their diet.
  • Being mindful of beverage choices, and swapping sugary drinks for water, which offers no nutritional value.
  • When dining out, choose local restaurants and cafes over fast-food chains, as they are less likely to offer ultra-processed options.

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