Are Ultraprocessed Foods Leading Us to an Earlier Death?

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We have a Whole Foods grocery near our office, and I used to drag one of our managers there for lunch meetings every day. He would complain, but now a new study shows that I may have been saving his life? Turns out that data is suggesting that eating unprocessed foods may be helping us live longer. Let me explain.

What Are Ultraprocessed Foods?

Ultraprocessed foods are foods that have been altered significantly by adding things to them, such as preservatives, artificial coloring, fats and sugars, and other additives. Why do we add this stuff to food? There are many reasons. Preservatives, for example, are added to stretch out those expiration dates to the maximum. Food coloring is added to make, for example, those marshmallows in your Lucky Charms pretty. In addition, these foods are typically manufactured via one or more of a variety of processing methods (milling, salting, emulsification, liquefaction, etc.). In most cases, by the time the process is complete, most ultraprocessed foods have very little to no resemblance to the original product.

Most of what we might call “junk food” would be considered ultraprocessed, but a lot is included in this list that you might not think of as junk food: cookies, sodas, hot dogs, hamburgers, fish sticks, sugary cereals, pizza, chips, canned and dehydrated soups, pre-prepared baby food, and so much more. Simply put, these are foods that are highly processed, nutrient-poor, and only serve to fill up our stomachs and increase our waistlines. Unfortunately, in the U.S. as a whole, over 60% of our diet consists of ultraprocessed foods. Why so much? In today’s fast-paced world that’s only getting faster, we are constantly looking for more conveniences, and grabbing a box or can of something out of the pantry or a heat-and-eat frozen meal out of the icebox is quick and easy.

What impact does consuming all of this ultraprocessed food have on our health?

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Increasing Ultraprocessed Food Consumption May Mean Increasing Risks of Earlier Death

A new study investigated if eating high proportions of ultraprocessed foods had any impact on all-cause mortality (or death from any cause). This was a very large-scale cohort study consisting of over 44,000 adults aged 45 and above.

The results? In the participants who increased their ultraprocessed food proportions by 10%, there was a 14% greater risk of death from any cause, including cancer, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses. In addition, the study found that eating ultraprocessed foods was more common for the following groups: younger age, lower income, lower education, higher BMI, and lower exercise or activity levels. The specific associations between these indicators and ultraprocessed food consumptions weren’t within the scope of this study, but, certainly, some things can be assumed. For example, those with a higher income have the resources for and easier access to healthier whole-food choices. Higher BMI, for example, could be the result of consuming sugar-laden, high-carb ultraprocessed foods, as we know a diet heavy in processed carbs and sugar is associated with obesity, particularly if there is already a genetic predisposition for it.

So what’s the solution? A good start is to transition into a healthy diet by raising your percentage of healthy unprocessed or minimally processed food choices…

What Is Considered a Healthy Diet?

If you are among those consuming  60+% of your diet from ultraprocessed food choices, start making some food choices that will lower that percentage. You don’t have to go cold turkey, but work at a healthier diet bit by bit. Trade in that nightly handful of cookies for a bowl of berries sprinkled with “pure cinnamon.” Instead of snacking on M&Ms while you work or browse blogs on your computer, snack on walnuts, which have been shown to help keep the gut healthy. On the way home from work, pick up an organic roasted chicken prepared by your local grocery store deli instead of those chicken nuggets and fries from the fast-food drive-thru.

Everybody’s body is different, and, therefore, everybody’s path to good health is going to be different. So while one diet plan can’t be recommended for all, here are a few diets that you can consider as you work toward lowering your ultraprocessed foods intake:

There are plenty more to choose from; just make sure the diet you choose emphasizes whole foods and minimizes or eliminates the ultraprocessed stuff. Keep in mind that low-fat, high-carb diets have been debunked as healthy diets, so steer clear of these. If you need a good resource to start your new diet journey, you can download a free copy of Nutrition 2.0 by John Pitts, MD.

The upshot? Two things. Maybe being forced to eat lunch at Whole Foods is not so bad after all? Stay away from anything that comes in a package and never goes bad!

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Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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