Ultra-processed foods aren’t doing us any good. At least, that’s the verdict from a new study by the American Society for Nutrition, which followed more than 540,000 people, their dietary habits, and their health for almost three decades. According to the study, older adults who consumed higher amounts of ultra-processed foods were roughly 10 percent more likely to die after a follow-up of 23 years, compared with those who consumed lower amounts of ultra-processed foods. 

To classify what counts as ultra-processed food, the study used the Nova Food Classification System. This system classifies products like energy drinks, fish sticks, frozen pizza, chocolate milk, hot dogs, candy, and packaged bread as ultra-processed foods. 

The researchers noted that the “modest increases in death” were related to heart disease or diabetes, but did not find a cancer-related association. “Our study results support a larger body of literature, including both observational and experimental studies, which indicate that ultra-processed food intake adversely impacts health and longevity,” said Erikka Loftfield, PhD, Stadtman Investigator at the National Cancer Institute, in a statement. 

“However, there is still a lot that we don’t know, including what aspects of ultra-processed foods pose potential health risks,” Loftfield continued. “We observed that highly processed meat and soft drinks were a couple of the subgroups of ultra-processed food most strongly associated with mortality risk and eating a diet low in these foods is already recommended for disease prevention and health promotion.”

The study builds on existing research that has linked ultra-processed foods to a higher risk of disease. Hot dogs, bacon, and sliced ham, for example, are already classified as a Group One carcinogen by the World Health Organization.

RELATED: Long-Term Study Links Ultra-Processed Meat, Dairy to Higher Mortality Risk

hot dogs and hamPexels

Processed foods increase disease risk, while whole foods reduce it, research says

Plenty of research has also linked high consumption of whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, with a lower risk of disease.

In June, another study from the American Society for Nutrition added to this body of research by noting that simply snacking on baby carrots three times a week could come with notable health benefits. This is because they contain skin carotenoids, a type of phytonutrient with potent antioxidant properties. Antioxidants help to tackle harmful free radical damage in the body, which over time, increases the risk of chronic disease. 

“Previous studies have demonstrated that skin carotenoid levels can be increased by consuming three times the recommended serving of fruits and vegetables every day for three weeks,” said Mary Harper Simmons, a Master of Science in Nutrition student at Samford University, in a statement about the new study. 

“Our findings suggest that a small, simple dietary modification — incorporating baby carrots as a snack — can significantly increase skin carotenoid accumulation,” she continued. The study found that the benefits increased when the baby carrots were also combined with a multivitamin containing beta-carotene. 

raw veg trayPhotography By Tonelson

Another recent study from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health also advocated for diet change when it comes to reducing the risk of disease. The research, also published in June, found that a strain of Prevotella copri, a common gut microbe, was more commonly seen in patients with type 2 diabetes.

This microbe can produce large amounts of branched-chain amino acids, which increases the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

“We believe that changes in the gut microbiome cause type 2 diabetes,” said Fenglei Wang, PhD, in a statement “The changes to the microbiome may happen first, and diabetes develops later, not the other way around—although future prospective or interventional studies are needed to prove this relation firmly.” 

“If these microbial features are causal, we can find a way to change the microbiome and reduce type 2 diabetes risk,” he added. “The microbiome is amenable to intervention—meaning you can change your microbiome, for example, with dietary changes, probiotics, or fecal transplants.”

This study builds on previous research, which has suggested that adding more plant-based, whole foods to your diet can promote a healthier gut microbiome. This is because poor gut health can lead to chronic inflammation, a major risk factor for disease, but plant foods, which contain beneficial micronutrients like polyphenols, help the gut to thrive.


“Best described as the bodyguards of the gut, polyphenols have antioxidative, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial activities, which can improve our health,” Catherine Rabess, RD, told the BBC. “They can defend against harmful invaders as well as reduce inflammation and oxidative damage that can be linked to chronic disease.”

To find out more about the benefits of plant foods on the gut, and their ability to reduce the risk of disease, follow our guide to a whole food, plant-based diet here.

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