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Today: May 26, 2024

Doctors treat conditions tied to ultra-processed foods

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LA Post: Doctors treat conditions tied to ultra-processed foods
March 26, 2024
Harlow Calloway -

Imagine you're walking through the grocery store. All around are bright, colorful ultra-processed foods and packages trying to grab your attention. They make easy promises about saving time, being happy, and tasting really yummy. It's a familiar scene, one that we've all experienced countless times. But as you reach for that bag of cookies, that can of soda, or that tray of ready-made meals, pause for a moment and consider the hidden truth lurking beneath the attractive exterior.

Lots of proof shows these man-made eats are truly bad news. They may seem tasty but these factory foods put our health in major danger. The easy life they give comes at a huge cost, one we won't fully get until too late. We must look past the pretty wrapping and face the scary truth. By knowing what's really in these fake products, we can make good choices that put our well-being and loved ones' health first. The choice is ours: keep falling for processed food's sweet song, or go down a path of real nourishment and energy?

A big review of over 400 global studies found strong ties between eating ultra-processed foods and at least 32 alarming issues. These include 13 cancers, 8 heart problems, breathing troubles like asthma, diabetes, liver disease, depression, gut issues, and memory loss. "The research clearly shows cutting ultra-processed foods leads to longer life," says study author Dr. Eduardo Tinoco, a heart doctor at Sao Paulo University.

His team was stunned at the overwhelming proof that ultra-processed foods provoke such widespread harm. "Consuming these items reliably escalates risk for virtually all major lifestyle diseases," Tinoco laments. "We cannot ignore these processed foods that actively endanger bodies." 

So, which beloved grab-and-go snacks and drinks join this harmful category? Think mass-produced breads, cakes, candies, chips, sodas, instant noodle soups, plus ready-to-heat meals with long ingredient lists like frozen pizza or premade burgers. 

Producing endless processed shelves relies on stripping nutrition and chemically enhancing flavor and appearance. However, the resulting concoctions cause bodies to fail nutritionally while disrupting normal functioning. "Evolution shaped us to metabolize whole foods beneficially. Heavily altering those properties upsets the biological balance," scientist Dr. Frank Hu of Harvard Public Health explains. 

So why should the average person worry beyond willpower struggles over potato chips or sweet treats? "These chemicals accumulate to overwhelm vital systems until disease emerges," details endocrinologist Dr. Elizabeth Miles. 

For instance, excess sodium, sugars, and fats tax the heart as rates of hypertension, diabetes, and obesity climb. Preservatives like nitrites also convert into carcinogens, while emulsifiers and artificial flavorings breed inflammation underlying mood disorders, metabolic syndrome, and tumor growth. The subsequent stress sparks cascading consequences - heart attacks or strokes, cancer proliferation, dementia, and more. 

"Every 10% more ultra-processed food people eat elevates risk exponentially for things like obesity or diabetes," Miles continues. Some outcomes saw the likelihood jump over 50%, including death from heart disease. "Genetics simply cannot outpace such onslaughts." Some conditions linked to high-processed food diets are:   

  • Cancer: Higher intake is associated with a greater risk of 13 cancer types, including colorectal, prostate, stomach, liver, lung, uterine, gallbladder, kidney, pancreatic, throat, ovarian, multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer), and overall cancer mortality. Scientists believe compounds like added nitrites convert into DNA-damaging carcinogens. Emulsifiers that disrupt the gut microbiome also provoke tumor-fueling inflammation.  
  • Cardiovascular Disease:  Over 50% higher risk of mortality from blockages, heart attacks, arrhythmias, or strokes has been traced back to the consumption of ultra-processed foods. Heavy sodium, sugar, and artificial trans fat promote hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and blood vessel damage - all exacerbating factors. One study showed participants with the highest ultra-processed food intake had a 62% greater likelihood of heart attack and stroke over ten years compared to the lowest intake group.     
  • Liver Disease:  Studies link an ultra-processed diet with a 29% higher likelihood of developing fatty liver disease along with elevated liver enzymes signaling organ damage. Scientists suspect chemical additives accumulate to toxic levels or drive disorder-hastening weight gain. Those with the highest processed food intake suffer liver failure at three times the rate of the lowest intake groups.  
  • Digestive Disorders:  Up to 68% greater odds of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn's disease, and other inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD). Research identifies chemical food additives like emulsifiers that reduce microbial diversity and integrity, which are critical for gut health. Highly processed items also lack fiber, which is essential for healthy motility and bowel ecology.  
  • Respiratory Diseases:  Higher consumption of ultra-processed food elevates the likelihood of developing adult asthma or suffering breathing crises with pre-existing illnesses. Though exact mechanisms are unclear, researchers suggest synthetic additives, preservatives, and coloring agents provoke immune reactions or cell-level inflammation disrupting airways. 
  • Obesity: Adults eating more ultra-processed fare weigh, on average, 6.2 lbs more and have a 33% higher chance of obesity compared to the lowest processed food intake groups. Kids face up to 61% elevated risk. Scientists highlight combinations of towering sugar counts, high-calorie density, and aggressive marketing deliberately overriding natural fullness cues.   
  • Mental Health Disorders:  Research suggests double the odds of anxiety, depression, stress reactions, or reported poor mental health are observed in those eating more processed items compared to whole foods. Beyond fueling inflammation underlying mood issues, these foods provoke blood sugar spikes and crashes, destabilizing neurotransmitter balance crucial for emotional well-being.  
  • Neurodegenerative Disease: Those eating the most processed meals face 25% quicker cognitive decline and 53% higher dementia risk versus low processed food intake groups in multiple studies. Researchers again link chemical compounds, blood sugar dysregulation, and inflammation to developing seizures or expedited neuron damage over time.

Yet cheap convenience food dominates modern culture, comprising up to 60% of American diets. "Prioritizing accessibility and affordability over nourishment backfires tremendously on health," argues Tinoco. Experts agree change involves slowing down to savor balanced whole foods. 

"Processed fare chemically hijacks brains as well," describes neurologist Dr. Sandeep Chatterjee, noting addictive sugar/salt/fat combinations. Yet whole foods deliver more nutrient satisfaction and better taste experiences over time as flavor perception adapts.

"We believe escaping harmful dietary patterns is absolutely possible - and delicious," encourages Tinoco. He hopes their analysis sparks dialogue and solutions supporting that dietary transformation on a global level. "Returning to tradition proves profoundly flavorful." 

However, given the overwhelming detriments of processed food intake, experts argue that escaping current epidemics requires policy-level change. "Individually nudging better choices fails against billion-dollar industries deliberately maximizing addiction and consumption," asserts public health expert Dr. Sarah Gunderson. 

"It's akin to expecting personal responsibility to overcome tobacco marketing rather than banning ads and raising prices," Gunderson continues. She notes that ultra-processed manufacturers mimic Big Tobacco's playbook, targeting youth, low-income shoppers, and minorities bereft of nutrition education. 

Junk food purchases drop 24% through multiple initiatives combating accessibility and affordability. "We must intervene on systemic factors promoting harm before companies sacrifice more generations to profit," argues Dr. Frank Hu, a nutrition specialist at Harvard Chan School of Public Health who is also reviewing the analysis.  Potential solutions include:

  • Banning ultra-processed food marketing to kids.
  • Taxing items like soda and packaged snacks.
  • Requiring warning labels on products.
  • Subsidizing whole food costs.
  • Placing packaged goods in less prominent shelving.

"Creative efforts addressing root factors will overturn the disturbing processed food dependence strangling global health," asserts Hu. However, he also underscores the need for collective action through conscious consumer choices, healthcare provider counsel, and public pressure on corporations. 

"Vote with your dollars and voices toward whole food priorities," Hu encourages. "United, we can precipitate positive change." He believes incremental daily efforts by billions ultimately transform landscapes, enabling better choices that restore vitality that harmful products have hijacked.     

So next snack time, consider an apple with nut butter, a hardboiled egg, or leftover chicken instead of packaged cookies. Small steps avoiding unrecognizable industrial ingredients build over time into renewed habits, reconnecting us to minimally processed sustenance designed to nourish.

We can be truly healthy if we all have the courage to turn down those tempting junk food and snacks.

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