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  • A new study finds ultra-processed foods like soda, candy and prepackaged meat can lead to increased risk of health issues like cancer and heart disease.
  • The study found that consumption of ultra-processed foods accounts for up to 58% of daily calorie intake in high-income countries like the United States.
  • They found eating large amounts of ultra-processed foods was linked to a 50% increased risk of cardiovascular disease-related death.

High exposure to ultra-processed foods like sodas, candy, pre-packaged meat, sugary cereals, and potato chips is connected to an increased risk of 32 health issues including cancer, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and respiratory disorders, depression, anxiety, and early death, according to a new study published in The BMJ on February 28.

The study found that consumption of ultra-processed foods accounts for up to 58% of daily calorie intake in high-income countries like the United States. Middle- and low-income countries have also notably increased their consumption of them in recent years.

The people who ate more of these foods were at increased risk for depression, type 2 diabetes and fatal heart attacks.

Ultra-processed foods, which also include instant noodles, ready-made meals, and other packaged snacks like chips or cookies are mostly made out of “chemically modified substances extracted from foods, along with additives to enhance taste, texture, appearance, and durability, with minimal to no inclusion of whole foods,” the study says.

They have been processed industrially, with added flavors and colors, and have high amounts of salt, fat, and sugar and low amounts of vitamins essential to a healthy diet.

Evidence from the study points to alarming connections between eating high levels of processed foods and developing a number of health problems. The researchers reported there was “convincing evidence” of the following conditions being linked to eating ultra-processed foods.

  • Around a 50% higher risk of cardiovascular disease-related death.
  • Up to a 53% higher risk of anxiety and common mental health conditions.
  • A 12% greater risk of type 2 diabetes.

Additionally the researchers there was “highly suggestive evidence” of the following:

  • 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 disorders.
  • A 22% higher risk of depression.

“These findings support urgent mechanistic research and public health actions that seek to target and minimise ultra-processed food consumption for improved population health,” the study authors concluded.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, a registered dietician at the Cleveland Clinic Department of Department of Wellness & Preventive Medicine in Ohio and a senior fellow at the Meadows Behavioral Healthcare in Wickenburg, Arizona, who was not involved in the study, told Healthline that ultra-processed foods (UPF) are cheap and prevalent in everyday shopping options.

“UPF are typically highly hyperpalatable. That means it’s hard to stop eating them, and when you are not eating them, you may very well be craving them,” Kirkpatrick said. “They may even make you feel calm and content while consuming them – so there are reasons why we start eating them and can’t stop.”

Melanie Murphy Richter, a registered dietitian nutritionist and the director of communications for the nutrition company Prolon, who was not involved in the study, told Healthline that economic factors and the time crunch of many American schedules, combined with the difficulty of parsing food labels and marketing, can make UPF an easy choice. There are also emotional factors, she said.

“In my practice, I often have my patients answer a variety of intake questions that help me understand the strongest motives behind their food choices. For some people, it’s simply because these are comforting foods they knew as a kid or that their grandparents made for them,” Richter said. “Other people, it’s price. And ultra-processed foods are absolutely cheaper than healthier alternatives. For others, it’s emotional. People eat because they are stressed, sad or angry. And it just so happens that the foods our body wants during these emotional experiences are… sugar!”

The increased risks of sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, and common mental health disorders that UPF pose are connected to a number of different ways they interact with our bodies, Richter said. She pointed to four key areas: glucose spikes and crashes; gut imbalances; inflammation (which is linked to many mood disorders); and nutritional deficiencies from a lack of vitamins.

Because UPF are so high in added sugars, extreme swings in glucose regulation can create mood swings and irritability, which can lead to depression over time.

“High sugar diets have shown to decrease the production of necessary neurotransmitters like serotonin, which plays an important role in mood regulation and mental well-being,” Richter said. “Additionally, high intake of sugar preferentially feeds pathogenic (harmful) bacteria in our gut like yeast and mold which can lead to severe dysbiosis. These pathogenic bugs can block or hinder our ability to produce necessary hormones like serotonin that keep us calm and relaxed. In fact, just shy of half of all those who reported having IBS or IBD also report having either anxiety or depression.”

Kirkpatrick also noted that the amount of UPF consumed can be directly proportional to the level of depression or anxiety: “Some studies also show an impact with the amount as well – as consumption of UPF goes up, so may risk for adverse mental health outcomes,” she said.

A new study suggests that consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to 32 adverse health outcomes like cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, depression, and early death.

Ultra-processed foods, which include store-bought cookies, prepackaged snacks, processed meats, sugary cereals, and sodas, are cheap and easy to obtain.

Researchers say consuming large amounts of ultra-processed foods can disrupt gut health, cause glucose spikes, and contribute to chronic inflammation, all of which have negative impacts on mental health.