It’s well established that overweight and obesity are contributing factors in type 2 diabetes, but, other than that, it’s been frustratingly difficult to connect dietary practices to the risk of developing the condition. However, a new study from France suggests at least one important link.
The consumption of ultra-processed foods has been rising greatly around the world. In some countries, they are estimated to comprise 60% of daily food consumption. Ultra-processed foods are foods created by certain physical and chemical processes. Compared to unprocessed foods, they usually contain more total fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt and have lower amounts of fiber and vitamins. They also commonly have flavoring agents, emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners and colors, as well as other additives. Examples of ultra-processed foods include mass-produced packaged breads, packaged snacks, sweetened beverages and reconstituted meat products containing added preservatives.
For their study, the researchers studied, over a two-year period, 24-hour dietary records containing information on more than 3,500 food items from over 100,000 people participating in an ongoing French health survey known as NutriNet Santé. The participants also contributed information on any developing health concerns, including type 2 diabetes. The median follow-up was 6 years.
In reporting their findings, the researchers used a statistic called “person years” that measures the number of new cases of a disease over a certain period of time. They found that the rate of new cases of type 2 diabetes in the group that ate the most ultra-processed foods was 116 per 100,000 person years; in the group that ate the least, the rate was 113. The researchers also reported that when ultra-processed food consumption rose by 10 percentage points, the risk for type 2 diabetes was 15% greater. A most interesting finding was that the risk was independent of weight gain. According to study leader Bernard Srour, PhD, “Even if participants did not gain weight during follow-up, they were at risk of developing diabetes if their ultra-processed consumption was higher.”
Dr. Srour summed up the report by stating, “We advise people to limit their consumption of ultra-processed foods and privilege unprocessed or minimally processed foods, of course, in addition to a nutritionally healthy diet low in salt, sugar, fat and energy density; an optimal BMI [body-mass index]; and healthy lifestyle behaviors.”
A freelance writer and editor based in the Chicago area, Gustaitis has a degree in journalism from Columbia University.