2 Foods Linked to Shorter Lifespans

(NEXSTAR) – Certain ultra-processed foods may shorten your life, according to results from a decades-long study, researchers say.

The findings, presented Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition in Chicago, indicated that older adults who ate diets high in what researchers called “ultra-processed,” or highly processed, foods were about 10 percent more likely to die during the nearly 30-year study period. Those with higher intakes of ultra-processed foods were specifically more likely to have a risk of death related to diabetes or heart disease, researchers said of the study results, which have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

However, the results showed that there was no increase in deaths from cancer.

More than 540,000 subjects, ranging in age from 50 to 71, took part in the study, the American Society for Nutrition reported in a press release. More than half have died since researchers began collecting their self-reported dietary data in the mid-1990s.

Researchers used the NOVA classification system to divide foods into four categories: 1) unprocessed or minimally processed foods; 2) processed ingredients (such as oils, butter, etc.); 30 processed foods (mostly Category 1 foods that have been modified or supplemented with Category 2 ingredients); and extremely processed foods, made using industrial processes and with ingredients that home cooks rarely use.

Researchers said two types of ultra-processed foods were “stronger” linked to harmful effects.

“We found that highly processed meats and soft drinks are some of the subgroups of ultra-processed foods most strongly associated with mortality risk. Eating a diet low in these foods is already recommended for disease prevention and health promotion,” said lead author Erikka Loftfield, Ph.D., of the National Cancer Institute.

A representative of the research group was not immediately available to comment on the specific types of sodas or processed meats that Loftfield cited. But ultra-processed foods, as defined by the NOVA categorization system, include both sugary and artificially sweetened sodas, as well as sausages, hot dogs, chicken or fish nuggets, and other “reconstituted meat products,” according to the World Health Organization.

Loftfield acknowledged that the study did not establish causality, but researchers said the findings held up under closer inspection when other unhealthy characteristics of the participants, such as obesity or smoking, were taken into account. In other words, even participants who had lifestyles considered healthier but reported eating more ultra-processed foods had an increased risk of death.

The American Society for Nutrition noted that the study itself was not peer-reviewed, but was only “evaluated and selected” for presentation based on the opinions of a “committee of experts.” The study authors also said that more research needs to be done on the topic, in part because of the changes in the American diet landscape since the study began.

In addition to the processed foods research, studies discussed at Nutrition 2024 included preventing menopausal weight gain through sauna use; reducing healthcare costs by offering personalized meals for patients with diabetes or heart disease; and even the possibility of creating a nutrient-rich diet from ultra-processed foods.

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