Eating processed foods can increase your risk of early death from heart disease by 58%, study finds
INSIDER 2hrs ago
a hand holding a hot dog: Juanmonino/Getty Images © Juanmonino/Getty Images Juanmonino/Getty Images
  • People who eat lots of ultraprocessed foods like pizza, snack cakes, bacon, and sausages have up to 58% higher risk of dying of heart disease, and 52% higher risk of dying of stroke, according to a new study.
  • Ultraprocessed foods include ready-to-eat items that are manufactured with industrial additives such as high-fructose corn syrup or seed oils.
  • Researchers aren't sure exactly why processed foods are so bad for us, although added sugar and seed oils are two explanations.
  • Evidence also shows they can cause us to overeat. 
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

It's no secret that processed foods, while cheap and convenient, are terrible for our health. 

The worst offenders - ultraprocessed foods filled with preservatives and added sugar - have been linked to a higher risk of heart disease and premature death, according to a study published last month in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

A group of Italian researchers followed 24,325 men and women age 35 and older for up to 10 years, collecting data on their eating habits and health outcomes.

They found that participants who ate plenty of ultraprocessed foods had a higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, heart attack, or stroke than those who did not. The more processed foods they ate, the greater the increase in risk, the data found.

Participants who consumed the most, in this study, ate at least 15% of their daily calories in the form of ultraprocessed food, and up to 50%. That's between 300 to 1,250 calories a day worth of processed food for most people, or the equivalent of 2-8 servings of hot dogs, candy bars, soda, or the like. 

People in that category were 58% more likely to die of cardiovascular disease during the study than their peers who consumed the least ultraprocessed food (no more than approximately one serving a day) They were also 52% more likely to die of stroke or another type of cerebrovascular disease. 

'Ultraprocessed' includes food manufactured with industrial additives, like high-fructose corn syrup and processed oils

The most common forms of ultraprocessed food in the Italian study were pizza, snack cakes and pies, and processed meats (including anything cured or smoked, such as bacon and sausages). 

But the definition also includes some surprising examples, like granola or flavored yogurt, that may appear to be healthy at first glance.

Gallery: 8 Dangerous Foods That Are Shortening Your Life (Eat This, Not That!)

That's because ultraprocessed food refers to any edibles that are packaged in a ready-to-eat format, produced in factory with thickeners, preservatives, coloring, and other additives. They're likely to contain high-fructose corn syrup, protein isolates, processed seed oils, and other ingredients to maintain flavor and keep them shelf-stable for long periods of time.

Other examples of ultra-processed foods include candy, soda, snack bars, manufactured baked goods such as bread, margarine, energy drinks, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets. 

Ultraprocessed food makes us eat more sugar

Previous research has found that ultraprocessed food tends to be highly palatable, meaning it can make us hungrier and encourage overeating. 

Researchers in this most recent study theorized that sugar played a major role in the risk associated with ultraprocessed foods. Consuming too much sugar has previously been linked to health issues including heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. Evidence also suggests that artificial sweeteners may pose similar health risks. 

But neither sugar nor other ingredients like saturated fat could totally explain the health risks, meaning we still don't fully understand why ultraprocessed food is so dangerous.

More research is needed to better understand what's behind the health risks of ultraprocessed foods. What we do know, however, is that swapping to minimally-processed foods seems to help reduce those risks.

These include whole foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, unprocessed lean meats, whole grains, and healthy sources of fat like olive oil and avocado. 

Read more:

Dietitians share their most hated foods, from deli meat and energy drinks to red wine

6 things we found were linked to cancer in 2020, from weight-loss pills to sitting too much

Eating a lot of processed foods could cause your body to age more quickly, a new study suggests

Show More
Latest News
20 must-read health books
The Health section of your local bookstore or online book retailer looks different than it did a couple of decades ago, when titles like Food-Free at Last: How I Learned to Eat Air or The South Beach Diet Supercharged were popular picks. Still today, authors—including would-be physicians, B-list celebs and underqualified fitness experts—dole out “health advice,” trying to convince readers that running themselves ragged with dieting and strenuous exercise will make them thinner, prettier, and happier. In fact, it has had an adverse effect, especially on women. The cruel dieting culture, incessant calorie counting, and little to no representation of health experts from diverse communities, along with the unrealistic standards set by the beauty and fashion industries, have led to eating disorders and severe mental health issues. Today, coupled with wellness, the topics covered in health and well-being books focus more on making healthy choices daily, keeping active, practising self-care, and being mindful of our mental health. Thanks to the body positivity movement, and some notable influencers in this space, we know that healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. This is also a time when we are hearing from more underrepresented voices in this space, making health advice and wellness tips more inclusive and relevant for all. Start the new year off with motivation, stories, and advice on how to live a healthier, happier life that works for you. Get moving by adding these 20 must-read health books to your cart.
5 Minutes| Espresso