Ultra-Processed Foods Linked to Higher Risk of Cancer, Heart Disease, Diabetes: Study

Naveen Athrappully
By Naveen Athrappully
November 25, 2023Health News
Ultra-Processed Foods Linked to Higher Risk of Cancer, Heart Disease, Diabetes: Study
This combination of file photos made in 2016 shows (from L) obese people in Los Angeles, Mexico City and Manchester. (Robyn Beck, Ronaldo Schemidt, Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

Eating more ultra-processed foods (UPFs) like savory snacks and soft drinks can potentially raise the risk of cancer co-occurring with diabetes and cardiovascular disease, according to a recent study.

The study, published in The Lancet on Nov. 13, looked at whether the consumption of ultra-processed foods was linked to higher incidences of multimorbidity or co-occurrence of at least two chronic diseases in an individual. An examination of health data of 266,666 participants from seven European nations led the researchers to conclude that higher intake of UPFs resulted in an “increased risk” of cancer co-occurring with heart disease or diabetes.

UPFs refer to foods that are industrially manufactured with added ingredients and additives like hydrogenated oils. Such food items include soft drinks, processed meats, sweet or savory packaged snacks, and pre-prepared frozen dishes.

In the study, roughly 34 percent of daily kilocalories (kcal) consumed by men and 32 percent among women were found to be accounted for by UPFs, which comes to a third of their daily diet. Researchers followed the study participants for 11.2 years, at the end of which 4,461 participants were found to have developed multimorbidity illnesses.

The most common co-occurrence was cancer among people with cardiovascular disease, followed by cancer among those with type 2 diabetes, and finally, type 2 diabetes among individuals with cardiovascular disease.

In terms of ultra-processed food subgroups, “higher intakes of artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages, and animal-based products were associated with higher risk of multimorbidity, as was higher consumption of sauces, spreads, and condiments, but with less certainty,” the study said.

“In contrast, ultra-processed breads and cereals showed an inverse association with the risk of multimorbidity, but with a borderline certainty. Sweets and desserts, savory snacks, plant-based alternatives, ready to eat/heat and mixed dishes were not associated with risk of multimorbidity.”

Heinz Freisling, co-author and study lead, said the findings were cause of “concern” since ultra-processed foods nowadays comprise over half of people’s daily food intake, according to a Nov. 14 press release by the World Cancer Research Fund International.

“Critics of the classification of certain foods as ultra-processed argue that the definition is impractical and that some foods classified as ultra-processed make important contributions to the nutrient intake of specific population groups (e.g., older adults),” Mr. Freisling said. “Such criticism should certainly be considered.”

“However, our study emphasizes that it’s not necessary to completely avoid ultra-processed foods; rather, their consumption should be limited, and preference be given to fresh or minimally processed foods.”

Chronic Diseases

While researchers admitted that the mechanism enabling UPFs to influence the risk of chronic disease is not “completely understood,” they speculated that obesity resulting from the consumption of such foods could be an explanation.

Many ultra-processed food items have higher energy density, meaning more calories per weight or volume. In addition, softer textures of such food items contribute to less chewing. The satiety signals of UPFs may also be delayed, it said.

“Diets with a high proportion of UPFs have been associated with a lower nutritional quality such as lower intake of dietary fiber and vitamins, and a higher intake of free sugars and saturated fat.”

The presence of food additives from processing and contaminants from packaging can also affect endocrine pathways or the gut microbiome, thus contributing to the risk of disease, researchers wrote.

Funding for the study came from the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Fondation de France, Cancer Research UK, World Cancer Research Fund International, and the Institut National du Cancer.

“Funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript,” the study stated. “None of the authors declared a competing interest.”

Physical and Psychological Effects

Multiple other studies have also found links between UPFs and health. One study published in February suggested that increased consumption of ultra-processed foods could be linked to a higher risk of developing and dying from cancer.

A 2019 study conducted by French researchers discovered that every 10 percent increase in the consumption of UPFs could potentially raise the risk of early death by 14 percent.

There is also the possibility of psychological consequences. A paper published by Australian researchers stated that consuming ultra-processed foods may be linked to an increased risk of depression and anxiety.

The research team determined that consumption of ultra-processed foods disrupts the microbiota-gut-brain axis, which refers to the communication between gut microbes and the brain. “That is why the gut microbiome is increasingly recognized as a key factor unifying environmental and human health,” the paper stated.

“Loss of diversity in the human gut microbiome owing to dietary intake is associated with worse health outcomes in cancer, immune, and metabolic diseases, as well as emotional health in children and depression and cognitive ability in aging.”

A review of 281 international studies published in The British Medical Journal in October this year stated that the level of UPF addiction among children was “unprecedented” at 12 percent, which comes to around one in eight kids.

As a comparison, alcohol tends to have an addiction rate of 14 percent among adults, with tobacco at 18 percent. UPF addiction among adults was found to be 14 percent.

From The Epoch Times

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