Danger Ahead: The harm of processed foods

This article was originally published as an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, 5 March 2024: https://www.jpost.com/food-recipes/article-790323

About 4 months ago, I published an article about the various health problems caused by eating highly processed foods.  I began with the following quote from Michael Pollan, “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.”  Now we know that this is truer than ever.

According to a new review of 45 meta-analyses covering almost 10 million people published in the British Medical Journal, we see far reaching ramifications of eating processed foods.  Senior author Wolfgang Marx, of Deakin University in Geelong, Australia stated, “We found consistent evidence linking higher intakes of ultra-processed foods with over 70% of the 45 different health outcomes we assessed.”

In countries like the United States, more than 60% of the average person’s diet consists of ultra-processed foods.  To clarify, I am not referring to gently processed foods, like healthy breads, crackers, jams, and canned vegetables that won’t do a great deal of harm.  We are referring to foods that use many ingredients including food additives, processed raw materials (hydrogenated fats, modified starches, etc.) and ingredients that are rarely used in home cooking. These foods are mainly of industrial in origin and are hyper palatable (you always want more). Ready-to eat-meals, jarred sauces, cakes, cookies, candies, most breakfast cereals, and pop-in-the-microwave foods are typical examples of ultra-processed foods.

Looking at the study

We see some staggering statistics. “Strong evidence shows that a higher intake of ultra-processed foods was associated with approximately 50% higher risk of cardiovascular disease-related death and common mental disorders,” said lead author Dr. Melissa Lane. Cardiovascular disease encompasses heart attacks, stroke, clogged arteries, and peripheral artery disease.  In addition, these foods contribute to cardio-metabolic health outcomes, weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension.

Researchers found highly suggestive evidence that eating more ultra-processed foods raised the risk of obesity by 55% and sleep disorders by 41%. In addition, development of type 2 diabetes rises by 40%, and the risk of an early death from any cause by 20%. But it was something else in this study that stood out and was different from previous studies.

New findings

This meta-analysis showed convincing evidence that a high intake of ultra-processed foods could increase the risk of anxiety by up to 53%! In addition, eating this way upped the risk of depression by 20%.  Yes, what you eat can have a pronounced effect on mental health and on mood as well.

In an article published in 2021 in The International Journal of Disease Reversal and Prevention, psychiatrist Kimberley Cranford, MD, took a look at previously published evidence on the food and mood.  Cranford goes through many of the studies that have compared more Mediterranean style diets versus the Standard American diets including a 2014 meta-analysis of studies. This review discovered that an association did exist between a diet high in fruits, vegetables, some fish, and whole grains, to a reduced risk of depression.

It is also interesting to note that besides processed foods, an Australian study discovered that women who eat less than 3-4 servings of red meat weekly were 50% more likely not to have depression. Women who consumed more were more likely to be depressed.

Perhaps the most outstanding example of a study that Dr. Cranford cites, was a study done by the GEICO insurance company which encouraged its obese, diabetic employees to eat a whole-foods, plant-based diet.  They didn’t restrict calories or modify their exercise routines.  The control group got no dietary advice. The fantastic results after 5 months were better sleep, vitality, and mental health.  This study was replicated 10 times!

Less is more

The evidence is very clear. When ultra-processed foods are out of the diet, and replaced with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, the results less disease -including mental health!  With evidence so clear, what is holding us back?  Take heart, we have been successful before.

We did this already with cigarettes.  We had 50% of adults smoking in the early 1960’s and now that number is 12%.  This is a huge public health victory!  We can commit to do the same with ultra-processed foods.  Just like tobacco, there needs to be clear warning labels on packages declaring their harmful effects. It’s also time for governments to stop subsidizing harmful foods, and instead promote foods like broccoli, cauliflower, green leafy, berries, and fresh fruits. Starting today, we can cut health costs and create an entire society of people living better and longer lives.

In a recent conversation with a clinical psychologist, I suggested that she and her colleagues are likely banging their heads against the wall if a patient is not eating well.  Not only did she agree with me, she said we also need to get patients to sleep properly and exercise to bring superior results.

So, we have another study telling us about the negative impact of poor diet on health.  This time mental health was addressed as well.  It’s already late in the game.  We need to act today.  Even before our public health officials and politicians act, we need to.  Get this food out of your house and out of our schools.  There are plenty of health treats out there.  By doing this, you will, add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”


One Comment

  1. Shmarya Richler April 17, 2024 at 12:09 am - Reply

    And you will add life to your days and years.

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