A new study published in the JAMA Internal Medicine journals reveals that a diet high in processed foods – the staple of most western diets – can shorten your lifespan. The study was conducted in France and followed the health and diet of almost 45,000 adults for eight years. Most of the subjects were in their late 50s when the study began.
The average subject consumed about a third of their calories from processed foods like:
- Instant noodles
- Instant soups
- Breakfast cereals
- Energy bars and drinks
- Chicken nuggets
- Ready-made meals and snacks
- Packaged snack foods
- Any foods made using industrial processing
Over 600 subjects died, mainly from cancer and cardiovascular disease, during the course of the study. Even after adjusting the data to take into account general health, socioeconomic status, influencing behaviors, and compliance with a healthy diet, they found that, for every 10 percent increase in consuming processed foods, the chance of early death increased by 14 percent.
Possible factors linking processed foods with chronic disease and earlier death
The risk of suffering from chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity, heart disease, autoimmune diseases, high blood pressure, dementia, and Alzheimer’s significantly increases when processed foods make up a large part of your diet. The authors of the study identified the following as possible factors linking processed foods with the increased risk of chronic disease and earlier death:
High-temperature processing may form contaminants. Processing food at high temperatures can alter protein structures which the body responds to with inflammation. Functional medicine practitioners know that industrial oils become toxic to the brain and body when they are processed at high temperatures.
Additives may be carcinogenic. Food additives are synthetic chemicals that are foreign to the human body. They bind with food proteins to create new molecules that activate the immune system. Many synthetic chemicals are too difficult for the body to metabolize and eliminate, which raises inflammation along with the toxic burden. Having been linked to brain-based symptoms and disorders, synthetic chemicals do not belong in food when they have not been vetted as safe for human consumption.
Packaging of prepared foods can lead to contamination. The industrialized packaging process can introduce contaminants into the food itself. For those who want to avoid gluten, eating packaged foods increases your risk of exposure as gluten cross-contamination can occur when multiple foods are often processed on the same equipment.
What we know about processed foods in functional medicine
Those were the concerns that came out of the research. In addition, functional medicine practitioners are educated in the following risk factors associated with eating processed foods:
Industrial oils. The fats you consume impact your brain health since it is primarily comprised of fat. Industrially processed oils, usually made from seeds, frequently turn rancid because their molecular structure is very unstable. These oils are generally inflammatory and contribute to poor neuron structure and integrity. Processed foods that contain hydrogenated fats are especially problematic for the brain and body and have been linked to cognitive decline, heart disease, and inflammation.
Poor fatty acid ratio. Processed foods contain oils that are very high in omega 6 fatty acids. The optimal ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids (such as from nuts and cold-water fish) is at least 4:1, though 1:1 is even better. The average American’s diet, which is comprised mostly of processed foods, represents a ratio of 25:1 way too high in omega 6. This promotes inflammation and can lead to obesity and chronic disease.
Too many processed carbohydrates. Unstable blood sugar is one of the biggest contributors to chronic disease and dementia. Processed and packaged foods are predominantly grain-based and/or sugary making them very high in carbs. Whenever you eat them, your blood sugar spikes, triggering inflammation and contributing to the chronic disease process.
Gluten. Many people who have a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease go undiagnosed. This can make eating packaged foods very problematic since the majority of processed foods are wheat-based and thus contain gluten. Consistently consuming gluten puts their body in a constant state of inflammation, thus promoting chronic disease. So far, gluten has been linked to 55 diseases, most of them autoimmune related.
If you’d like to learn more about the health benefits of eating a whole foods diet with basic real-food ingredients, please contact my office.