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Avoid These Foods if You Want to Live Longer

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Avoid These Foods if You Want to Live Longer about undefined
If you’re eating the standard American diet, I’ve got important news. Instead of nutrient-dense whole foods, most of the calories you’re consuming are in the form of “ultra-processed” food.

Unfortunately, the Harvard School of Public Health points out that the ingredients used in these foods are tailor-made to trigger blood sugar issues, weight gain, and high blood pressure.1 And if that’s not enough, researchers have found that these foods can damage the all-important genetic material that directly impacts the way you age and how long you live.

One study from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that ultra-processed foods make up about 60 percent of total calories in the U.S. diet.2So, what is ultra-processed food?

Ultra-Processed Food vs. Processed Food

Ultra-processed foods are formulations of substances taken from real food – things like starch, sugars, proteins, oils and fats – that are then combined with colorings, emulsifiers, flavorings and other cosmetic additives to make them tastier and more appealing.

In 2009, the World Health Organization implemented a system to classify processed foods, called the NOVA classification. It lists four categories detailing the degree to which foods are processed. These include:
  1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods. These include the natural, edible food parts of plants and animals as well as foods that maintain their nutritional content but have been slightly altered for preservation.
  2. Processed culinary ingredients. Food ingredients derived from a minimally processed food.
  3. Processed foods.Foods from either of the two previous groups that have added salt, sugar or fats.
  4. Ultra-processed foods. Processed foods that go beyond the incorporation of salt, sweeteners or fat to include preservatives as well as involve multiple steps in their manufacturing process to result in the final product.
Sugar is a common ingredient in ultra-processed food. It’s estimated that 90 percent of calories within ultra-processed foods are in the form of added sugar.3If you’re a regular reader, you know how I feel about sugar and all of its health perils, from triggering diabetes to fueling the growth of cancer.

Of course, if you’re looking for a food label to tell you whether you’re buying a highly processed food, you won’t find it. The NOVA system is not currently recognized in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration or the USDA.

Fortunately, deciphering what’s an ultra-processed food isn’t too hard—just look for that high sugar level and look for convenience.

The Rise of “Fake” Foods

Ultra-processed foods are the height of convenience. They’re ready to eat, they have a long shelf life, and they’re affordable and attractive. For example, think about a Twinkie…

Just pop it out of the wrapper and it’s ready to eat. Twinkies almost never go bad and their golden cake is very attractive.

While foods like Twinkies are popular among consumers, they’re also popular with food companies because they’re cheap to make and bring in big profits.

Foods considered to be ultra-processed include ice cream, sugar-sweetened beverages like soft drinks, milkshakes, chips, processed meats, sugary cereals, doughnuts, cookies, cakes, most candy bars, muffins and pastries. You can add many so-called “health foods” to the list as well, such as sugar-laden granola bars and a number of meat and dairy substitutes.

How Processed Food Damages Your Body

While we know chips, sugary cereals and the like aren’t good for us, it wasn’t until recent years that researchers began uncovering just how bad ultra-processed foods are for your health.

Studies show that in addition to raising blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure, ultra-processed foods can trigger weight gain and chronic inflammation that leads to a cascade of health problems, from memory loss to cancer.4,5 And now, the latest research shows ultra-processed foods can even steal years away from your life.

Shortens Your Telomeres

In a study carried out by researchers at the University of Navarra in Spain, they examined the diets of 645 men and 241 women with an average age of 67.7 years. Next, researchers performed genetic analyses that determined the length of these people’s telomeres—the ends of DNA that get shorter as you age.

Generally speaking, telomere length is used as an indicator of your biological age. The shorter telomeres get, the more your body has aged.

The Navarra researchers found that people who consumed the most ultra-processed food ate more fats, saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, sodium, cholesterol, sugar, fast food, and processed meats while consuming less protein, carbohydrates, fiber, fruits, vegetables and olive oil, as well as a host of necessary micronutrients.

Those eating the highest number of these nutrient-deprived foods had an 82 percent increased risk of having short telomeres compared to people who ate the highest number of fresh foods like fruits and vegetables. That’s a significant difference!

Meanwhile, moderate consumers of ultra-processed food had a 40 percent increased risk of shorter telomeres.6

Longer Telomeres for a Longer Life

Researchers agree that those shortened telomeres have dire consequences, as they’re often linked to a shorter life. For instance, an eight-year study of 11,898 people by these same Spanish researchers found that those eating the most ultra-processed foods were 40 percent more likely to die over the course of the research.7 If you’ve been following our regular reports in this newsletter on aging research, the results of this study should come as no surprise.

Fresh food contains a wealth of nutrients that produce different health benefits in the body. But the overly sweetened concoctions cooked up by food companies with cute mascots on colorful packaging are processed until they’re nothing but food-like substances. Not only do these ultra-processed foods lack important nutrients critical to good health, but they’re easy to binge eat. As a result, they often fill you up, so you end up choosing to eat fewer fresh foods that contain nutrients you need.

My Takeaway

The new research is just more reason to avoid these ultra-processed foods as much as you can. It’s one thing to have a treat or two once in a blue moon, but another to eat them every single day.

I’ve also found from reading the research, and from personal experience, that the more fresh food you eat, the less likely you are to crave “fake” foods anyway. So, take heart, if you’re “addicted” to processed foods, realize that science shows your taste buds will change over time and those healthy foods you’ve been avoiding will become more palatable and enjoyable.
  1. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/processed-foods/
  2. Steele EM, et al. Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study. BMJ open, 2016 Jan 1;6(3):e009892.
  3. Steele EM, et al. Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study. BMJ open, 2016 Jan 1;6(3):e009892.
  4. Tapsell LC, et al. Foods, nutrients, and dietary patterns: interconnections and implications for dietary guidelines. Advances in Nutrition. 2016 May. 9;7(3):444-54.
  5. Poti JM, et al. Ultra-processed food intake and obesity: what really matters for health—processing or nutrient content? Current Obesity Reports. 2017, Dec. 1;6(4):420-31.
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32330232/
  7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31623843/

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