Death by junk food? Ultra-processed foods becoming the new ‘silent killer’

Death by junk food? Ultra-processed foods becoming the new ‘silent killer’

BOCA RATON, Fla. — Medical professionals are raising the alarm over a “silent killer” that has infiltrated American society — ultra-processed foods. In a new study, physicians from Florida Atlantic University’s Schmidt College of Medicine are shining a light on the perils of these foods and the urgent need for a dietary shift.

Ultra-processed foods, a common and widespread item in diets across the United States, include many products like soda, cereals, and snacks. They are also a staple in children’s diets, making up nearly 70 percent of their food intake. These foods are full of additives such as oils, fats, sugars, starches, sodium, and a variety of emulsifiers — ingredients foreign to a natural human diet and potentially detrimental to health.

“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,” says study corresponding author Dr. Dawn H. Sherling, associate program director for the internal medicine residency and an associate professor of medicine at FAU’s Schmidt College of Medicine, in a university release.

“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.”

vending machine

Ultra-processed foods are defined within the NOVA classification system, which categorizes foods based on their level of processing. These foods are distinguished by their industrial formulation and contain ingredients not typically used in home cooking, posing risks not only due to their additive content but also because they lack the nutritional integrity of whole foods.

The commentary outlines several health risks associated with these foods, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. These foods often contain emulsifiers and other additives that can disrupt the natural gut microbiome, potentially leading to conditions like inflammatory bowel disease. Additives like maltodextrin may alter the mucous layer of the gut, making it more susceptible to harmful bacteria and triggering immune responses that could harm the body.

“When the components of a food are contained within a natural, whole food matrix, they are digested more slowly and more inefficiently, resulting in less calorie extraction, lower glycemic loads in general, and lower rise in triglyceride-rich lipoproteins after eating, which could result in atherosclerotic plaque,” explains study senior author Dr. Allison H. Ferris, an associate professor and chair in the Department of Medicine and director of the internal medicine residency program at FAU’s Schmidt College of Medicine.

“Therefore, even if the troublesome additives were removed from the ultra-processed food, there would still be concern for an over-consumption of these products possibly leading to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.”

The commentary also draws a parallel between the fight against ultra-processed foods and the historical battle against tobacco, predicting a challenging road ahead due to the powerful influence of multinational food corporations.

“The multinational companies that produce ultra-processed foods are just as, if not more, powerful than tobacco companies were in the last century, and it is unlikely that governments will be able to move quickly on policies that will promote whole foods and discourage the consumption of ultra-processed foods,” says Dr. Sherling. “Importantly, health care providers also should remain cognizant of the difficulties that many of our patients have in being able to afford and find healthier options, which calls for a broader public health response.”

Unhealthy, processed food, aggressive prostate cancer

Despite the absence of a universally accepted definition for ultra-processed foods, researchers urge health care professionals to advocate for a diet rich in whole foods and minimal in processed options. They highlight the importance of addressing not only the health risks posed by these foods but also the socio-economic barriers that make healthier choices less accessible to many Americans.

As the evidence against these foods continues to mount, researchers say the call for dietary change becomes increasingly urgent. They’re aiming to reverse the trend of declining health and improve the longevity and quality of life for future generations.

The study is published in The American Journal of Medicine.

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