Intake of processed food linked to higher risk of 32 illnesses: Study - Hindustan Times
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Intake of processed food linked to higher risk of 32 illnesses: Study

Feb 29, 2024 07:11 AM IST

These products also tend to be high in added sugar, fat, and/or salt, but are low in vitamins and fibre.

Enhanced exposure to ultra-processed foods is associated with an increased risk of 32 adverse health outcomes including certain cancers, major heart and lung conditions, mental health disorders, even early death, according to a study published in BMJ on Thursday.

The findings show that diets high in such ultra-processed food may be harmful to many body systems.(Unsplash)
The findings show that diets high in such ultra-processed food may be harmful to many body systems.(Unsplash)

Ultra-processed foods, including packaged baked goods and snacks, fizzy drinks, sugary cereals, and ready-to-eat or -heat products, undergo multiple industrial processes and often contain colours, emulsifiers, flavours, and other additives. These products also tend to be high in added sugar, fat, and/or salt, but are low in vitamins and fibre.

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The findings show that diets high in such ultra-processed food may be harmful to many body systems, underscoring the need for urgent measures to reduce dietary exposure to these products and better understand the mechanisms linking them to poor health.

According to the study, such foods can account for up to 58% of total daily energy intake in some high income countries, and their share of plate has rapidly increased in many low and middle income nations in recent decades.

“Convincing evidence showed that higher ultra-processed food intake was associated with around a 50% increased risk of cardiovascular disease related death, a 48-53% higher risk of anxiety and common mental disorders, and a 12% greater risk of type 2 diabetes. Highly suggestive evidence also indicated that higher ultra-processed food intake was associated with a 21% greater risk of death from any cause, a 40-66% increased risk of heart disease related death, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and sleep problems, and a 22% increased risk of depression,” said the paper.

Many previous studies and meta-analyses have linked highly processed food to poor health, but no comprehensive review has yet provided a broad assessment of the evidence in this area.

To bridge this gap, researchers said that they 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.

The review articles were all published over the past three years and involved almost 10 million participants. None of the studies were funded by companies involved in the production of ultra-processed foods.

Doctors also advise limiting in-take of ultra-processed food items to keep diseases at bay.

“It is firmly established that what you eat has a direct bearing on your health and well-being. Highly processed food, especially items that contain processed cheese and high sugar levels, for example, is fodder for cancer cells. This study has only corroborated it. Maintaining a healthy life-style is important that includes being extra careful about what one eats,” said Dr PK Julka, former head, radiation oncology, All India Institute of Medical Sceinces (AIIMS), Delhi.

Some of the counter measures suggested include front-of-pack labels, restricting advertising and prohibiting sales in or near schools and hospitals, and fiscal and other measures that make unprocessed or minimally processed foods and freshly prepared meals as accessible as ultra-processed foods.

“It is now time for United Nations agencies, with member states, to develop and implement a framework convention on ultra-processed foods similar to the framework on tobacco, and promote examples of best practice,” said the researchers in the paper.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Rhythma Kaul works as an assistant editor at Hindustan Times. She covers health and related topics, including ministry of health and family welfare, government of India.

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