By Serena Gordon
Grab-and-go foods are an easy option for busy lives, but if you opt for ultra-processed foods a lot, you may pick up something you don’t want — heart disease.
About 55% of Americans’ daily calories come from eating ultra-processed foods, a new study found. And the more calories that came from ultra-processed foods, the worse heart health was, the findings suggested.
“We eat food every day, yet so easily forget to prioritize the importance of what a healthy approach to lifestyle can generate. This study demonstrates that the greater the consumption of highly processed food, the greater the association with poor heart health metrics,” said Dr. Benjamin Hirsh, director of preventive cardiology at Northwell Health’s Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital, in Manhasset, N.Y.
Hirsh was not involved in the study but is familiar with the findings.
So, what exactly are ultra-processed foods? They’re ones made mostly or totally from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches, hydrogenated fats and added sugars. They may also have additives, like artificial flavors or colors, or substances that stabilize these foods (emulsifiers), according to the researchers.
Many items marketed as “convenience foods” are ultra-processed, like frozen meals, jarred sauces and fast food. Other examples of ultra-processed foods include:
- Soft drinks
- Packaged salty snacks, cookies and cakes
- Processed meats, like hot dogs and cold cuts
- Chicken nuggets
- Powdered and packaged instant soups
This isn’t the first study to point the finger at ultra-processed foods as a potential cause of heart woes. Another was published in May in the BMJ. It looked at more than 100,000 French people for over five years and found that those who ate the most ultra-processed foods were more apt to have a stroke or heart condition.
The new study was led by Dr. Zefeng Zhang, an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The researchers reviewed data collected between 2011 and 2016 from a nationally representative group of almost 13,500 U.S. adults.
The study volunteers reported what they had eaten in the past day.
The participants were also asked about lifestyle factors included in the American Heart Association’s Life’s Simple 7 campaign. This includes having healthy blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels, avoiding tobacco products, eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy body weight and participating in regular physical activity.
The researchers found that adults who got about 70% of their calories from ultra-processed foods were around half as likely to have ideal heart and blood vessel health as people who regularly got 40% or less of their calories from ultra-processed foods.
Every 5% increase in ultra-processed food calories led to a corresponding decrease in overall heart and blood vessel health, the study found.
Dr. Eugenia Gianos, director of Women’s Heart Health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, noted that the study doesn’t prove cause and effect.
She said it’s also possible that people who eat these poor-quality foods may also smoke or not get enough exercise, so it’s hard to say the ultra-processed foods are a direct cause of heart problems.
But, Gianos noted that these foods are “essentially devoid of nutrients required for health.” They also may increase inflammation, negatively affect the balance of bacteria in the gut, and contribute to the development of plaque deposits in the blood vessels, she added.
“The study reinforces the need to educate the public on the benefits of a nutrient-rich, whole food, predominantly plant-based diet for optimal health,” Gianos said.
The findings are scheduled to be presented Saturday at an American Heart Association meeting, in Philadelphia. Findings presented at meetings are typically viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Learn more about keeping your heart and blood vessels healthy from the American Heart Association.
SOURCES: Benjamin Hirsh, M.D., director of preventive cardiology, Northwell Health’s Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital, Manhasset, N.Y.; Eugenia Gianos, M.D., director of Women’s Heart Health, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; presentation, American Heart Association meeting, Philadelphia, Nov. 16, 2019