The Price of Convenience: Ultra-Processed Food’s Toll on Heart Health

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While some factors that contribute to heart disease are well known, studies show a lesser known threat is emerging.

For more than a century, heart disease has had the dubious distinction of being the number one killer in the United States. Although some contributing factors are well-established, findings from two recent studies suggest another, lesser-known cause in the development of the disease: ultra-processed foods—now thought to make up 60 percent of the average American’s diet.

The First Study: Ultra-Processed Foods and the Risk of Cardiovascular Events

A meta-analysis published last month in The Lancet evaluated the dose-response relationship between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and the risk of cardiovascular events, which included “the morbidity and mortality of cardiovascular causes, and myocardial infarction, stroke, transient ischemic attack, [and] coronary intervention.”

The comprehensive analysis included twenty studies with more than 1 million participants (1,101,073) and a median follow-up of 12.2 years.

The authors found “a positive linear relationship” between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and the risk of cardiovascular events. Additionally, there was a positive correlation between consuming ultra-processed foods and coronary heart disease in regard to daily servings and energy proportion.

For example, the study found that a 10 percent increase in ultra-processed food consumption by “daily weight proportion” increased cardiovascular event risk by 1.9 percent, that every additional daily serving increased the risk of cardiovascular events by 2.2 percent, and that every 10 percent increase by “daily energy proportion” caused a 1.6 percent increase in cardiovascular events.

Ultra-Processed Foods and Cardiovascular Disease

Ultra-processed foods are foods with additives such as colorings, salt, sugar, oils, fats, chemicals, and preservatives. Research shows these foods contribute to diseases from cardiovascular disease to diabetes to cancer. These foods are also high in fats, sugar, and calories, meaning those consuming them are likely getting more than their daily requirements—which can lead to overweight and obesity—both risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

(Explode/Shutterstock)
(Explode/Shutterstock)

Dr. Jack Wolfson is a board-certified cardiologist and best-selling author who runs Natural Heart Doctor—a practice of holistic practitioners in Scottsdale, Arizona. When asked how much of a contributing factor ultra-processed foods are in the development of heart disease, he told The Epoch Times in an email that “ultra-processed foods are one of the leading causes of cardiovascular disease.”

Dr. Wolfson explained that “there are many ways that ultra-processed foods contribute to cardiovascular disease, including:

  • Changes to the gut microbiome
  • Increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut)
  • Inflammation/oxidative stress
  • Vitamin/mineral deficiencies
  • Acute hyperglycemic responses
  • Dyslipidemia
  • High blood pressure.”

This problem is complicated by the fact that most cardiologists know very little about the dangers of ultra-processed foods, Dr. Wolfson said, and, like all medical doctors, receive very little training in nutrition.

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Cardiovascular disease is an umbrella term for a variety of diseases that affect the heart and blood vessels. More than 800,000 people die of cardiovascular disease in the United States every year.

Coronary artery disease falls under this category and is the most common type of cardiovascular disease, causing clogged arteries, which can lead to heart attack and stroke. Coronary artery disease kills approximately 160,000 Americans annually.

Heart disease is a type of cardiovascular disease used to refer to various conditions that affect the heart’s structure and function.

Heart disease also has a considerable cost, accounting for almost $240 billion in health care costs annually in the United States, which include health care services, drugs, and lost productivity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Second Study: Ultra-Processed Foods and Coronary Artery Disease

Findings from another study published in 2021 also show the connection between ultra-processed foods and coronary artery disease.

The study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, included 13,548 adults aged 45–65 years from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study—with a follow-up of 27 years. The researchers calculated the participants’ daily servings of ultra-processed foods and broke them into four groups ranging from high to low consumption.

Ultra-processed foods in the study were defined according to the NOVA classification. The NOVA classification system uses four levels to rate how much processing food has undergone—one being unprocessed or minimally processed and four being the highest level of processing or ultra-processed.
The ultra-processed foods the study evaluated were listed as follows, with the percentages consumed by study participants.

  • Dairy products: ice cream (4 percent)
  • Fats and oils: margarine (18 percent)
  • Meats: hamburgers, hot dogs, processed meats (sausage, salami, bologna), beef, pork, or lamb in dishes (11 percent)
  • Sugary products: chocolate bars or pieces (Hershey’s, plain M&M’s, Snickers, Reese’s), candy without chocolate (6 percent)
  • Bakery goods: ready-made pies, donuts, biscuits, or cornbread, Danish pastry, sweet roll, coffee cake, croissant, cookies, cake, or brownie (15 percent)
  • Cereals: cold breakfast cereal (8 percent)
  • Fried foods: potato chips or corn chips, French fried potatoes, food fried away from home (6 percent)
  • Beverages: orange or grapefruit juice, low-calorie and regular soft drinks, fruit-flavored punch, or noncarbonated beverages (lemonade, Kool-Aid, Hawaiian Punch) (27 percent)
  • Liquor: hard liquor (5 percent)

The study found that those in the group with the highest intake of ultra-processed foods had a “19 percent higher risk of coronary artery disease” compared to those in the group that consumed the lowest amounts and that there was an “approximately linear relation” between the intake of ultra-processed foods and coronary artery disease risk.

The findings led the authors to conclude that greater “ultra-processed food intake was associated with a higher risk of coronary artery disease among middle-aged US adults.”

The Rise of Ultra-Processed Foods

Ultra-processed foods have become ubiquitous in the average American diet and contain many artificial ingredients that the human body has never encountered before. An increasing number of studies are emerging about their detrimental effects on human health.

In an article published last month in The American Journal of Medicine, doctors from Florida Atlantic University’s Schmidt College of Medicine hypothesize that the increase in consumption of ultra-processed foods is likely contributing to morbidity and mortality and our declining lifespans.

“Those of us practicing medicine in the U.S. today find ourselves in an ignominious and unique position—we are the first cohort of health care professionals to have presided over a decline in life expectancy in 100 years,” said Dr. Dawn H. Sherling, associate program director for the internal medicine residency, an associate professor of medicine, FAU Schmidt College of Medicine and one of the study’s authors.

“Our life expectancy is lower than other economically comparable countries. When we look at increasing rates of non-communicable diseases in less developed nations, we can see a tracking of this increase along with increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods in their diets,” Dr. Sherling said in a press release.

To understand some of the mechanisms involved in how ultra-processed foods affect our health, and cardiovascular health in particular, Dr. Sherling told The Epoch Times:

“Ultra-processed foods and some of the additives contained within them have been shown to increase inflammatory markers in the body. This may be due to changes that they cause within the gastrointestinal tract to our gut microbiomes.

“It turns out that our gut microbiome—when they digest the things we don’t—produce short-chain fatty acids, which work as signaling molecules to the rest of our body. This means that what we eat can have broad-ranging effects outside of our guts. But, back to the heart.

“When we eat ultra-processed foods, particularly ultra-processed carbohydrates, triglycerides, a form of bad cholesterol goes up and HDL, a form of good cholesterol, which is protective of our hearts, goes down. Beyond that, eating salty foods, which many ultra-processed foods are, can raise blood pressure. A combination of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and inflammation are all risk factors for heart attacks and other cardiovascular disease.”

When asked if studying the impact of these foods on health is complicated by the fact that many of them contain ingredients (chemicals, additives, etc.) that we may not have encountered before, Dr. Sherling said:

“Definitely. This is actually a major focus of a book I wrote on the topic. The additives that are put into our foods have basically just been studied in short-term experiments, looking for very specific toxicities.

“The FDA regulations were set up before we knew about how important our microbiomes are and what they do with the additives. They were also set up to look at individual additives, not in combination as they are often used today and certainly not if people ingest them for decades as we now have been doing. There are some researchers, most prominently in France, who are trying to study some of the most likely troublesome additives and their effects on our microbiomes and our health, but there are thousands of additives and they are only able to look at a few dozen.”

Final Thoughts

Although many of us try to avoid ultra-processed foods, their omnipresence on grocery store shelves and restaurant menus makes it increasingly difficult to do so. For those looking for ways to improve their diet and health overall, Dr. Sherling has some practical recommendations:

“First, be mindful of what you eat. Become a label-reader. The front of the package tells you almost nothing about what’s inside the package. Read ingredient lists, and if you can’t picture an ingredient in nature, put the package down and try to find something else that is more whole-food-based.

“Second, if you don’t know how, learn to cook. Maybe just a couple of things at first. I take care of a pretty diverse patient population and I was surprised to discover that the biggest barrier to people eating healthy is the ability, and of course, time to cook. When people come from families that still have scratch cooking knowledge, they are able to turn around their diets pretty quickly. That knowledge isn’t lost. If you don’t have a family member or friend who cooks, there are tons of recipes and instruction videos online. Just keep it simple and don’t get overwhelmed by fancy recipes.

“Lastly, be kind to yourself. Food shouldn’t be something else to stress out about. With all the advertising and misinformation out there, it can be a challenge to try to eat healthy. Just commit to making one small change a week and by the end of the year, you’ll have a much better diet.”

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