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Ultra-processed foods are wrecking your health, study says. Here’s how

Ultra-processed foods are shortening lives and worsening people’s health on at least 32 major health parameters, a new study has found.

A review of hundreds of epidemiological studies published in the British Medical Journal on Wednesday has found that higher exposure to ultra-processed foods is associated with an increased risk of 32 damaging health outcomes including cancer, major heart and lung conditions, mental health disorders, and early death.

These outcomes span mortality, cancer, and mental, respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and metabolic health outcomes.

The report carried out an “umbrella review (a high-level evidence summary) of 45 distinct pooled meta-analyses from 14 review articles associating ultra-processed foods with adverse health outcomes.”

These review articles were all published over the last three years and involved nearly 10 million participants.

“Greater exposure to ultra-processed food was associated with a higher risk of adverse health outcomes, especially cardiometabolic, common mental disorder, and mortality outcomes,” the report said

The report noted that ultra-processed foods, which include packaged baked goods and snacks, fizzy drinks, sugary cereals, and ready-to-eat or heat products undergo multiple industrial processes. As a result, they contain colours, emulsifiers, flavours, and other additives.

According to the review, ultra-processed foods were linked to a 50 per cent increased risk of cardiovascular disease-related death, a 48-53 per cent higher risk of anxiety and common mental disorders, and a 12 per cent greater risk of type 2 diabetes.

Not only are such foods associated with a 40-66 per cent increased risk of heart disease-related death, obesity, and sleep problems, and a 22 per cent increased risk of depression, they are likely shortening lives.

Higher consumption of ultra-processed food meant that there was a 21 per cent greater risk of death overall, from any cause, according to the study.

While the report found “limited evidence” of a link between such foods and breast cancer, pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer, it found “direct associations with a risk of colorectal cancer.”

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“These findings support urgent mechanistic research and public health actions that seek to target and minimise ultra-processed food consumption for improved population health,” the report said.

The percentage of calories derived from ultra-processed foods was high in high-income countries.

“Across high income countries, the share of dietary energy derived from ultra-processed foods ranges from 42% and 58% in Australia and the United States, respectively, to as low as 10% and 25% in Italy and South Korea,” the report said.

Amanda Nash, a registered dietitian and a manager at the Heart and Stroke Foundation, said she was not surprised by the findings of the report.

“Canadians are actually the second largest buyers of ultra processed foods and drinks in the world, second only to Americans, and people in Canada get about 50 per cent of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods,” she told Global News.

Nash said ultra-processed foods could include items such as sugary drinks, packaged snacks, chocolates, candies, industrial breads, cakes, biscuits, dessert, packaged soups or noodles, and frozen and ready-to-eat meals. She said these are not only cheap and affordable to many, they are also attractive.

“This is because they’re branded assertively, they’re packaged attractively, and they’re marketed intensely,” she said.

Nash said the only way to avoid those adverse health effects is to go back to basics.

“If we look at what Health Canada recommends, we’re going to be choosing half of our plate full of fruits and vegetables. A quarter of your plate would be whole grains, and then a quarter of your plate will be your protein choices.”

In October, another report published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found that addiction to ultra-processed food affects 14 per cent of adults and 12 per cent of children around the world. Meanwhile, addiction to tobacco impacts 18 per cent of adults globally, the report stated.

Talia Bronstein, vice president of research and advocacy at Daily Bread Food Bank, said, “Low-income communities don’t necessarily have the means or the access to buy the nutritious food that they would prefer.”

She said the cost-of-living crisis has made fresh produce prohibitive for many Canadians, which is increasing pressure on food banks in many of Canada’s major cities.

“We are now serving one in 10 people in Toronto at food banks. We just passed another new record in the past year. It took us 38 years to get to 1 million food bank visits in Toronto. It took us two years to get to 2 million visits and only one year — 2023 — to get just 3 million visits at food banks in Toronto.”

Nash agreed that the cost-of-living crisis is a major impediment for people living in low-income communities to move to healthier foods. But she said people still have some choice, even on a budget.

“If income is an issue, look for those higher shelf-life foods when they’re on sale and then stock up on things like canned beans, frozen vegetables and whole grain pastas. Those kinds of items will have a longer shelf life,” she said.

Nash’s biggest piece of advice is to give up sugary drinks entirely.

“Sugary drinks offer high calorie, a lot of extra sugar and added sugar, which means that it does not necessarily have nutrients attached to it and no other nutritional benefits,” she said, “It often includes foods that have a little bit of a health halo around them, things like in sports drinks or those vitamin waters.”


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