New study links eating ‘ultra-processed’ foods to increased chances of early death

Published in For the Health of It Author: Jessica George

Registered Dietitian
CentraCare Heart & Vascular Center

February is Heart Month and as good a time as ever to be thoughtful about what we eat and how that affects our health.

With that in mind, it’s not news that a diet high in pre-packaged foods isn’t healthy. But a recent medical study supports some of our concerns. That the more “ultra-processed” foods you eat, the higher your chances of early death. The study followed middle-aged adults in France from 2009 through 2017. Those who ate 10 percent more of these foods had a 14 percent increase in death during this time.

To clarify, “ultra-processed” foods are those that have undergone changes to make them ready-to-eat, drink or heat and are designed to have a long shelf life. Some examples of “ultra-processed” foods include:

  • Soft drinks
  • Ice cream
  • Mass-produced packaged breads and buns
  • Cookies, pastries and cakes
  • Pre-prepared pasta and pizza dishes
  • Reconstituted meat products — such as burgers, hot dogs and sausages

These foods often contain additives or hydrogenated oils. They generally also contain high amounts of salt or sodium — which is known to increase blood pressure. And having high blood pressure is linked to serious health problems such as heart attack, stroke and kidney disease.

The study’s authors acknowledge that more research needs to be done to confirm these findings. But as much as possible, we should:

  • Be selective in what foods we purchase. Recognize that some processed foods are OK, such as pre-prepped plain fruits, vegetables and grains. But others — like those listed above — are heavily processed and contain very little — or no — natural foods. Learn more about the different ranges of processed foods.
  • Favor diets that contain a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy and lean meats and proteins.
  • Opt for milk and water instead of soft drinks.
  • Choose homemade desserts instead of pre-made ones from the store.

The healthy changes we make today can make a real difference years from now.