Highly Processed Foods Linked to Cardiovascular Disease

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Highly Processed Foods Linked to Cardiovascular Disease

Consuming ultra-processed foods — those “made with no or minimal whole foods” and produced with dyes, flavorings, or preservatives — is linked to a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Ultra-processed foods, the study notes, make up 58% of the total energy intake from food in the United States. Yet despite accounting for most of what people eat, there hasn’t been much research looking specifically at this category of foods and the risk of developing cardiovascular disease — the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

For this study, researchers looked at a group of 3,003 adults without cardiovascular disease when the study began, in 1991. Participants completed detailed food frequency questionnaires every four years from then until 2008, and other data was collected at the same time — including body measurements, lifestyle habits and demographic information like education and income levels. The researchers used food questionnaire responses to determine participants’ intake of ultra-processed foods, and adjusted their total intake to reflect the proportion of overall calories these foods accounted for. When looking at outcomes related to ultra-processed food consumption, the researchers also adjusted for participants’ age, sex, education level, alcohol consumption, smoking and physical activity.

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The researchers collected data on participants’ cardiovascular disease until 2014, and data on deaths until 2017. During the entire study period, there were 251 cases of “hard” cardiovascular disease — major events like a heart attack or stroke. There were also 163 cases of “hard” or severe coronary artery disease, and 648 cases of total cardiovascular disease that included less severe conditions and events.

Each serving of ultra-processed foods found to increase cardiovascular risk

On average, participants consumed 7.5 servings per day of ultra-processed foods at the beginning of the study. Each serving of ultra-processed foods consumed daily was linked to a 7% increase in “hard” cardiovascular disease, a 9% increase in “hard” coronary artery disease, a 5% increase in overall cardiovascular disease, and a 9% increase in death from cardiovascular disease during the study period. These numbers add up quickly (multiply, actually) with multiple servings of ultra-processed food — for example, compared with someone who consumed no ultra-processed food, someone who consumed the average of 7.5 servings daily would be 66% more likely to have “hard” cardiovascular disease, 91% more likely to have “hard” coronary artery disease, 44% more likely to have any type of cardiovascular disease, and 91% more likely to die from cardiovascular disease.

The researchers concluded that consumption of ultra-processed foods was strongly tied to the development of cardiovascular disease. “Although additional research in ethnically diverse populations is warranted,” they noted, “these findings suggest cardiovascular benefits of limiting ultra-processed foods.”

Want to learn more about eating well with diabetes? Read “Improving Your Recipes: One Step at a Time,” “Top Tips for Healthier Eating” and “Cooking With Herbs and Spices.”

Living with type 2 diabetes? Check out our free type 2 e-course!

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips on social media

A freelance health writer and editor based in Wisconsin, Phillips has a degree from Harvard University. He is a former Editorial Assistant for Diabetes Self-Management and has years of experience covering diabetes and related health conditions. Phillips writes on a variety of topics, but is especially interested in the intersection of health and public policy.

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