Ultra-processed foods: Some you should avoid to improve overall health

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
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Processed meat and dairy products are two of the foods highlighted in a new diet study. Alexander Spatari/Getty Images
  • Researchers say overall dietary quality may have a larger influence on risk of death than the consumption of ultra-processed foods.
  • In their 30-year study, they report that some ultra-processed foods such as ready-to-eat meat products were major contributing factors to mortality.
  • The researchers add that their work highlights that ultra-processed foods don’t need to be universally restricted, but certain foods should be limited for longer term health.

Overall dietary quality has a larger influence on risk of death than the consumption of ultra-processed foods.

That’s according to research published today in the journal BMJ that states that certain ultra-processed foods are associated with a heightened risk of death.

“Our findings suggest that meat/poultry/seafood based ready-to-eat products and sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages are major factors contributing to the harmful influence of ultra-processed foods on mortality, which is in accordance with previous studies,” the study authors wrote.

“The findings provide support for limiting consumption of certain types of ultra-processed food for long-term health. On the basis of our data, limiting total ultra-processed food consumption may not have a substantial influence on premature death, whereas reducing consumption of certain ultra-processed food subgroups (for example, processed meat) can be beneficial,” they added.

However, researchers in the new study said that once they had taken overall diet quality into account, the association of ultra-processed foods on death was less pronounced.

They said this suggests that dietary quality may have a stronger influence.

The researchers argue their study highlights that not all ultra-processed food products should be restricted. Instead, certain kinds of ultra-processed foods such as meat, poultry, and seafood ready-to-eat meals could be limited with the focus being on overall diet quality.

“Diet quality looks at the total overall quality of someone’s diet,” Dana Hunnes, PhD, a senior dietitian supervisor at RR-UCLA Medical Center in California who was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today. “Is it filled with processed and ultra-processed foods or is it filled with non-processed foods such as whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, etc. A good-quality/high-quality diet would be mostly non-processed foods, mostly whole foods as they grew from the ground versus ultra-processed foods that are unrecognizable and have been stripped of their nutritional quality (sometimes having it added back in through fortification) and therefore add calories and fat to the diet without the beneficial nutrition qualities of the whole foods (including fiber).”

“You can occasionally eat ultra-processed foods if 95 percent of what you eat is whole, unprocessed foods and have good dietary quality,” Hunnes added. “Alternatively, you can eat a diet that is 90 percent ultra-processed/processed foods that don’t have much fiber and are unrecognizable and have extremely poor diet quality. Ultra-processed foods occasionally have a place in a healthy diet. We cannot be fully ascetic and eat 100 percent healthy all of the time, it’s not 100 percent feasible 100 percent of the time. That’s where the concept of diet quality comes in. The occasional ultra processed food is OK. Less though, is always better.”

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