In a new study, researchers in Brazil found that ultra-processed, ready-to-eat foods like hot dogs, frozen pizzas and doughnuts may cause people to die too soon. The results were published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, which is a journal that is reviewed by experts in the field.
The researchers said that ultra-processed foods have been linked to a higher risk of diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer for a long time. They wanted to go a step further and find out how the foods may be linked to dying too soon. The lead author, Eduardo Nilson from the University of So Paulo, said that they did a comparative risk assessment, or a simulation of how a risk factor affects health, to find out.
Based on their model and calculations, ultra-processed foods made up between 13% and 21% of Brazilian adults’ total energy intake. In 2019, more than 500,000 30–69-year-old adults died. About 57,000 of these people died too soon, or 10.5%, because they ate too many ultra-processed foods.
The team’s estimates were “conservative,” so the effect could be much bigger than they thought, Nilson said.
Even though the team hasn’t made a model for the U.S. yet, it’s likely that the numbers will be higher there.
He told USA TODAY, “It’s a matter of public health.” “In Brazil, there is a steady, slow rise in the number of people who eat highly processed foods. I think it has become more stable in the U.S., but it is still very high.”
What Is Ultra-Processed Food?
Nilson described ultra-processed food as ready to eat and ready to eat. They usually have few fresh ingredients and a lot of starches, processed proteins and food additives.
Nilson said, “It’s very different from what we have in our kitchens. When do you make food from scratch?” “They are meant to be eaten too much, have a long shelf life, and are usually cheap to make.”
People from low-income areas tend to eat these foods the most because they are worried about how much they can spend. He said that processed foods are easier to find and cost less than fresh foods. 20% less could make a big difference.
The researchers used data from 2017 and 2018 about how much food people in Brazil ate, as well as data from 2019 about population and deaths. The team also looked at data and health risks from other studies to figure out how many deaths were caused by eating ultra-processed foods.
Nilson said that just a 20% cut in the amount of ultra-processed foods would put the country’s consumption back to where it was 10 years ago.
“It wasn’t that long ago,” he said. “57,000 people could be saved from dying. We need policies that move quickly to get people to eat less processed foods and more fresh, minimally processed foods that are healthier.”
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People have a right to Healthy Food
He also said that people shouldn’t be blamed for what they eat.
“They are part of the food environment, which affects prices, physical access and the information that comes from labeling and advertising,” Nilson said.
“There are a lot of differences between the populations. The increase in ultra-processed foods in Brazil is mostly among the poorest people because they don’t have easy access to healthy foods.” It’s the same thing that happens in the U.S. and other countries where Black, Latino, and immigrant people have less access to healthy foods, he said.
“That needs to be fixed because everyone has the right to eat,” he said. “They have a right to enough food that is also healthy.”
Keeping people from dying too soon.
Nilson said that his team’s study is the first to try to figure out how ultra-processed foods affect deaths that happen too soon. Scientists have studied the effects of nutrients like sodium, some sugars, trans fats, and saturated fats in the past. The team said that one problem with the study is that the model didn’t take into account repeated events or the effect of interactions between people, populations, or their environments and how they affect health equality.
But the researchers said that, despite its flaws, their model can help policymakers understand how eating habits affect death. Policymakers can use these findings to think of ways to stop people from dying too young.
Nilson also said that cutting out highly processed foods will cost something.
For example, cutting back on sugars could mean more artificial sweeteners. That’s why it’s important for the government to make sure that food and eating patterns, not just nutrients, are used to make dietary guidelines. He said that making rules based only on nutrients lead to a lot of confusion about how ultra-processed foods affect health.
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