We buy them because they are typically cheap, convenient and designed to be “hyper-palatable”. But, when we consume ultra-processed foods regularly, there is fallout that affects our whole body.
New research, presented this week at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions, found the more ultra-processed foods in our diet, the worse our heart health is.
Too much highly processed food, too often hurts our heart health.Credit:Getty
Specifically, researchers at the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention looked at dietary and heart health data from 13,446 adults.
They found that, for every 5 per cent increase in energy intake coming from ultra-processed foods, there was a 5 per cent decrease in their overall cardiovascular health.
Ultra-processed foods include soft drinks, sweet and savoury snacks such as fruit straps, potato chip and sweets, many breakfast cereals, microwaveable frozen meals, instant soups and fast food.
More than 30 per cent of the average Australians energy intake comes from these items, with some people’s diet comprising of up to 74.5 per cent of ultra-processed “foods”.
What do ultra-processed foods actually do to your heart?
A few things. Firstly, if we’re filling up on junk foods, there’s less room for the foods that promote heart health.
“You’re less likely to eat fruit, vegetables, whole grains; the foods that we know will protect your heart,” explains Heart Foundation dietitian Sian Armstrong.
Secondly, the ingredients that make up ultra-processed foods – such as trans fats, processed and refined oils, refined starch, added sugars and artificial additives – are “potentially harmful”, adds accredited practising dietitian, Dr Joanna McMillan.
For every 5 per cent increase in energy intake from ultra-processed foods, there was a 5 per cent decrease in overall cardiovascular health.
Trans fats, which occur naturally in some forms of animal fat and artificially in hydrogenated vegetable oils, are inflammatory and raise LDL (bad) cholesterol, which clogs up our blood vessels putting an extra load on the heart. Meanwhile, eating too much salt wrecks the delicate balance of sodium in your bloodstream, reducing the ability of your kidneys to remove the water and pacing strain on blood vessels.
“Less is known about direct effects [of additives], at least with relation to heart disease, but some have been shown to negatively impact the microbiome and this may be the mechanism by which there is a knock-on effect on physical health,” explains McMillan.
“Refined starch and added sugars – when these are consumed without the protective fibres and nutrients found in whole plant foods, these have a much bigger impact on blood glucose and insulin levels.
“What we know less about is refined protein … but only because it hasn’t really been studied. If refined fats and refined carbs are bad for us, why should it be different for refined protein?”
Finally, because many convenience foods are highly palatable and rarely filling, it is much easier to eat more of them. An excess of energy and an excess of weight cause the heart to pump harder to supply blood to all your cells.
“Consuming more kilojoules than you need in itself is harmful to blood vessels and the cardiovascular system,” McMillan adds.
“You also digest most of it in the upper part of the GI tract – leaving less for the microbiota in the colon … The idea that modern foods are harder to digest is largely wrong – the problem is the opposite. We get those kilojoules very, very easily and most of the gut is left without its designed job to do.”
It’s the accumulative effect of having too many of these foods, too often.
“It’s not that one doughnut is going to give you heart disease,” she assures. “One food is not going to be the be-all and end-all. It’s about the big picture, it’s about eating less of the processed foods and more of the healthy foods.”
For this reason, the Heart Foundation encourages people to consider what they should be eating more instead of what they need to eat less.
“It’s about dietary patterns. We don’t need to make it overly complicated by worrying about this nutrient verse that nutrient,” Armstrong says, adding there are easy ways to up our intake of healthy foods.
Frozen vegetables and canned chickpeas or lentils are affordable and long-lasting and can be as nutritious as fresh foods. Swapping white bread for wholegrain bread is another simple swap.
“There can be confusion when you are constantly telling people don’t eat this or don’t eat that,” Armstrong says.
“It’s more encouraging when you think about what you can have more of. That’s more empowering for people. Food is something you should be enjoying … we should be focusing on what we should be having, not on what we shouldn’t be having.”
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