The 32 damaging health outcomes linked to ultra-processed food

Ultra-processed foods may be 'hurting every part of the body'.

The 32 damaging health outcomes linked to ultra-processed food
Pastries and doughnuts on display
Yum? (Picture: Getty Images)

Eating biscuits by day and ready meals by night might be convenient, but it comes with a pretty stark health warning.

A huge study of 10 million people has found that consuming ultra-processed foods (UPFs) such as these is associated with 32 illnesses.

According to a review of the study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), UFP consumption can lead to heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, adverse mental health and early death.

Ultra-processed foods are made using ingredients you can’t recreative in your own kitchen. They include things like chemicals, colouring, preservatives, emulsifiers, and other additives.

These items also tend to be high in sugars, fats, salt, and often low in fibre and vitamins.

Other popular high UFPs include ready meals, baked goods, fizzy drinks and popular snacks.

The review found that people exposed to a high UFP diet were consistently more susceptible to problems with their heart, breathing, mental health and even face a higher chance of cancer and shorter life span.

Woman putting a ready meal in the microwave
Be careful how much UFP you consume(Picture: Getty Images)

Higher consumption of UPF was associated with a 50% increased risk of cardiovascular disease-related death, and a 48-53% higher risk of mental health issues including anxiety, and a 12% greater risk of type 2 diabetes.

Higher UFP intake was also linked to a 21% greater risk of death (from any cause), obesity, 40-66% greater risk of heart-disease, sleep problems and a 22% more chance of depression.

Other related health conditions include asthma, high cholesterol, and gastrointestinal issues.

Close-up of crispy fried potato chips
Crisps too(Picture: Getty Images)

Researchers from around the world were involved, including Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the US, the University of Sydney and Sorbonne University in France.

Writing in the BMJ, they said: ‘Overall, direct associations were found between exposure to ultra-processed foods and 32 health parameters spanning mortality, cancer, and mental, respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and metabolic health outcomes.”

‘Greater exposure to ultra-processed food was associated with a higher risk of adverse health outcomes, especially cardiometabolic, common mental disorders and mortality outcomes.’

The health warnings you need to know
The health warnings you need to know (Picture: BMJ)

They said that these findings should be used to target the overconsumption and selling of UFPs.

‘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.’

Close up of a large selection of cream crackers
And biscuits(Picture: Getty Images)

Another study conducted by researchers in Australia also found that eating a lot of ultra-processed foods, such as ready meals, sugary cereals and fizzy drinks, has been linked to poor mental health, as well as an increased risk of dying from heart problems. 

In fact, the study found that a higher UPF intake was associated with a 48-53% greater risk of developing anxiety. But why?

‘We know that the brain relies on a number of nutrients, so it’s hardly surprising that food impacts mental wellbeing and mood,’ Dr Frankie Phillips, a registered dietitian with the British Dietetic Association, told Metro.co.uk.

In the BMJ review, researchers also noted that the review was limited and that they couldn’t rule out that other variables they did not test could be a factor in the results.

Dr Chris van Tulleken, an associate professor at University College London and a leading UPF experts, said while the findings were consistent with other studies about the risks of UFP, there has to be understanding for why they are so popular.

‘We have good understanding of the mechanisms by which these foods drive harm,’ he said. ‘In part it is because of their poor nutritional profile – they are often high in saturated fat, salt and free sugar.

‘But the way they are processed is also important – they’re engineered and marketed in ways which drive excess consumption – for example they are typically soft and energy dense and aggressively marketed usually to disadvantaged communities.’

For economically disadvantaged groups, buying processed foods may be the most economic option.

The NHS has a clear guideline for how much processed foods you can still consume as part of a healthy diet.

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