A public health researcher is warning that ultra-processed foods like white bread and burgers could damage your heart
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Ultra-processed foods are designed to be consumed quickly, whether as an inexpensive packaged snack or a ready-made meal.
Public health researchers are beginning to discover that people who eat more of these convenience foods die faster, eat more, and get more illnesses. Their hearts are not so healthy either.
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Ultra-processed foods are designed to be cheap, convenient, and keep us energized until the next meal.
But health experts are increasingly finding that these foods are not suitable for long-term satisfaction or even to keep us alive.
A new study by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control suggests that many Americans depend on junk food to stay alive, and that it damages their heart.
It may be that the more factory-made, ultra-processed foods we eat - like granola bars that sit on the shelves for months, canned ravioli laden with thickeners and stabilizers, and soft drinks sweetened with high fructose corn syrup - the weaker our hearts play.
"These foods are designed to taste so good," said study author Dr. CDC epidemiologist Zefeng Zhang told Insider before his study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in October.
But this taste excitement has a hidden price.
Ultra-processed foods are often not only low in nutrients, but also induce people to keep eating after they are full. This can be because the food overrides the natural full sensors in the body, and also because it can be consumed and digested so quickly.
"Ultra processed foods are often lacking in fiber," said Zhang. This means that people "don't feel as full as they do with real food".
Zhang and his colleagues found that large numbers of people rely on ultra-processed foods to feed themselves
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Zhang's study was based on rigorous national health and nutrition surveys conducted every year by the CDC. Researchers ask people questions about their diet and do a physical exam to take stock of their general health.
For the study, Zhang and his team of four other investigators examined more than 11,200 respondents in the United States between 2011 and 2016. The study participants were not an absolutely accurate representative sample of Americans demographically. Researchers asked more questions to minority, low-income, and elderly people in the United States in hopes of gathering useful information about their respective health problems that have not been well studied or understood in the past. (For example, about 25% of the original respondents were over 60 years old.)
They discovered that many of these people depend on ultra-processed goods to stay alive. More than half of respondents' daily calories came from ultra-processed foods.
The team's work also suggests that people's hearts do not thrive on these ready-made meals. For every 5% increase in processed food consumption, there was a corresponding decrease in a person's cardiovascular health score of 0.13. In other words, the dose of processed foods that people eat seems really important to their heart health.
Researchers still don't know exactly why processed foods are so bad for our health. However, it is clear from Zhang's research and other studies that people who eat more processed foods also tend to have more heart problems, die earlier, get more cancer, and gain weight.
A burger with Nutella. insider
But processed foods are also useful, especially when people are busy or when money is tight.
"Ultra-processed foods have many benefits," Kevin Hall, a nutrition researcher for the US National Institutes of Health, told Business Insider when his blockbuster study was published. He suggested that people who depend on ultra-processed foods could eat about 500 more calories a day.
"It's cheap. It stays there for a while. You don't have to have all the fresh ingredients on hand that could spoil. You don't have to have all of the equipment to prepare these meals from scratch."
Ultra-processed foods typically contain at least five ingredients
Scientists typically define ultra-processed foods as "industrial formulations that typically contain five or more - and usually many - ingredients".
Basic foods like vegetables, beans, meat, cheese, and other products are examples of unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Ultra-processed foods have been broken down from these whole or fresh forms and converted into ready-made meals.
"Ultra-processed foods are often high in sugar, sodium, and saturated fat, as well as chemical additives," said Zhang.
These foods can be treated with thickeners, dyes, stabilizers, icings, and additives. They can be extruded, shaped, or preprocessed for frying before being packaged in cans or packaging. They can contain high fructose corn syrup, protein isolates, or transesterified oils (substitutes for trans fats, which are now largely banned).
Examples of these include many packaged granola bars and breakfast cereals, carbonated soft drinks, candy, margarine, energy drinks, flavored yogurt, chicken nuggets, and hot dogs.
This study did not extensively examine which ultra-processed foods are most harmful, and it is difficult to determine how people's eating habits are related to their other life choices or circumstances (such as activity level, access to food, income or family history).
It is also difficult to know from such a study if there is some difference in quality between different processed foods, but there is evidence to suggest that they are not great overall.
Even small changes in snacking habits can make a difference
Crystal Cox / Business Insider
Zhang suggests that even a small daily change to an eating routine could help.
If a 5% increase in ultra-processed foods can hurt heart health, a slight decrease in ultra-processed food consumption, like replacing a packaged snack with some fruit, vegetables, or nuts can help your heart.
"Get a snack on whole grain bread," he suggested instead of going for the white, fluffy stuff (just make sure it has the words "whole grain" in it and isn't a refined grain product.)
He says that even if you "change a little," as your wallet and schedule can afford, these subtle differences can add up to better overall health over time.
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