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HomeHealthUltra-processed foods major contributor to heart diseases, cancer and diabetes

Ultra-processed foods major contributor to heart diseases, cancer and diabetes


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Ultra-processed foods (UPF) have been identified as a major contributor to a range of harmful health effects, according to the world’s most extensive review of its kind.

The study, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), revealed a direct link between UPF consumption and 32 adverse health outcomes, including an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, adverse mental health, and premature death.

This comprehensive umbrella review involved nearly 10 million people, marking a crucial milestone in understanding the impact of ultra-processed foods on human health. UPFs are food products that undergo multiple industrial processes and often contain additives such as colours, emulsifiers, and flavours.

These highly processed foods, including items like cereals, protein bars, fizzy drinks, ready meals, and fast food, are typically high in added sugar, fat, and salt while lacking essential nutrients like vitamins and fibre.

The prevalence of UPF consumption has been rising globally, with more than half of the average diet in the UK and the US now consisting of such foods. The British Medical Journal (BMJ) study underscores the need for urgent measures to address the rising consumption of ultra-processed foods and its associated health risks.

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The researchers, drawn from institutions including the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the University of Sydney, and Sorbonne University, analysed data from 45 pooled meta-analyses involving 9.9 million people over the past three years.

The results demonstrated a clear association between higher UPF intake and increased risks across various health parameters, including mortality, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, mental health issues, respiratory problems, gastrointestinal disorders, and metabolic health outcomes.

UPF consumption leads to 32 various adverse health outcomes (Representative image: iStock)

“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,” said the reports of BMJ.

One of the alarming findings from the study is the association between UPF consumption and a 50% increased risk of cardiovascular disease-related death. Additionally, the review found a 48 per cent to 53 per cent higher risk of anxiety and common mental disorders, a 12 per cent greater risk of type 2 diabetes, and a 21 per cent greater risk of death from any cause with higher UPF intake.

The evidence suggested that diets high in ultra-processed foods pose significant threats to overall health.

These findings raise concerns, especially as the prevalence of UPF consumption is on the rise, particularly among younger, poorer, or disadvantaged populations. In the UK and the US, where more than half of the average diet consists of ultra-processed foods, efforts to curtail the consumption of these products are urgently needed to mitigate the associated health risks.

While previous studies have highlighted the potential negative impact of UPFs on health, the BMJ study stands out as the most comprehensive review to date. The evidence gathered across various health outcomes underscores the urgent need for public health interventions to reduce the consumption of ultra-processed foods.

Despite some limitations in the review, such as potential unmeasured factors influencing the results, the evidence presented is convincing enough to warrant significant attention from policymakers, healthcare professionals, and the public.

The researchers emphasize the importance of implementing population-based and public health measures to target and reduce dietary exposure to ultra-processed foods, with the goal of improving human health. In addition to the health risks associated with UPFs, the study highlights the need for public health campaigns and policies aimed at reducing the consumption of these products.

Initiatives to improve nutritional literacy, promote whole and minimally processed foods, and regulate the marketing and availability of ultra-processed foods could play a crucial role in mitigating the health risks identified in the study. (With inputs from Guardian and BMJ)


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