Study Finds Dose-Response Relationship Between Ultra-Processed Foods and Long-Term Side Effects

Findings come amid increasing concerns over the long-term side effects of ultra-processed foods, which make up 58% of American diets.

An international group of researchers warn that eating highly processed foods, like packaged snacks, carbonated beverages, instant noodles, and ready-made meals, increases an individual’s risk of developing of both physical and mental health issues, including risk of early death.

The findings were published last week in the medical journal The BMJ, indicating that the more ultra-processed foods an individual eats, the higher their risk of breathing problems, type 2 diabetes, depression, cardiovascular problems, cancer and death.

The researchers indicate they found a direct dose-response relationship, showing that the more ultra-processed foods consumers, the higher the risk becomes. This provides strong evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship between the highly processed foods and health problems identified by the researchers.

Ultra-processed Food Health Risks

Ultra-processed foods are made with industrial ingredients and include food additives, as well as artificial colors and flavors used to extend shelf life. Prior research suggests human bodies may not be equipped to process the artificial additives in ultra-processed foods, and there is increasing evidence that individuals who consumer large amounts of the products may face serious long-term health risks.

Overall, people who consume more ultra-processed foods also consume other unhealthy foods, including more carbonated sodas, coffee, and fewer vegetables.

Previous research suggests consuming ultra-processed foods may speed up cognitive decline and irritable bowel syndrome, heart attacks and strokes, and increase the risk of early death.

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In this new study, researchers from the United States, Australia, France, and Ireland conducted a review of 14 meta-analysis studies published from 2009 to June 2023. They analyzed studies involving 9,888,373 subjects, to evaluate how exposure to ultra-processed foods affected their long-term health outcomes, including overall mortality, cancer, mental, respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and metabolic health issues.

A secondary analysis was conducted to determine how often individuals consumed ultra-processed foods and the long-term health impacts of regular and continuous consumption.

Ultra-Processed Food Linked to Early Death

According to their findings, higher consumption of ultra-processed foods is directly correlated with a higher risk of dying from cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Regular and continuous consumption was also associated with an increased risk of developing mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety, as well as wheezing, sleeping problems, Crohn’s disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other health issues.

Those who consumed high amounts of highly processed foods had a greater likelihood of being overweight and developing chronic high blood pressure, obesity, central nervous system tumors, and breast, leukemia, pancreatic, and prostate cancers, compared to those who rarely consumed them, according to the data. Greater exposure to ultra-processed foods was directly associated with higher incidences of death, including those related to heart or cardiovascular diseases.

The researchers concluded there was a direct link between exposure to ultra-processed foods and those health problems, as well as an increased risk of early death.

“Greater exposure to ultra-processed food was associated with a higher risk of adverse health outcomes, especially cardiometabolic, common mental disorder, and mortality outcomes. These findings provide a rationale to develop and evaluate the effectiveness of using population based and public health measures to target and reduce dietary exposure to ultra-processed foods for improved human health,” the researchers determined. “They also inform and provide support for urgent mechanistic research.”

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