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Ultra-processed foods linked to diabetes risk

Heavily processed foods are often high in sugar, fat and empty calories.

Ultra-processed foods linked to diabetes risk


People who eat lots of ultra-processed foods are more likely to develop diabetes than those whose diets contain more foods found in nature, a new study suggests.

Heavily processed foods are often high in sugar, fat and empty calories. Consuming lots of these foods has long been linked to an increased risk of a wide variety of health problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, obesity and certain cancers.

The current study offers fresh evidence linking these foods to type 2 diabetes, the more common form of the disease, which is often associated with excess weight. Among people in the study who ate the most ultra-processed foods, 166 in every 100,000 developed diabetes, compared with 116 out of every 100,000 people who ate the smallest amounts of these foods.

“We advise people to limit their consumption of ultra-processed foods and privilege unprocessed or minimally processed foods - of course in addition to a nutritionally healthy diet low in salt, sugar, fat and energy density; an optimal BMI; and healthy lifestyle behaviors,” said lead study author Bernard Srour and senior author Mathilde Touvier of Universite Paris 13 in France.

In particular, people looking to lower their risk of diabetes should limit their intake of red and processed meats and sodas and other sugary drinks, Srour and Touvier said by email. People should also eat lots of yogurt, vegetables, whole grains and nuts to help decrease their diabetes risk, they advised.

For the study, the researchers examined data on more than 104,000 adults without diabetes. Participants were 43 years old, on average, at the start of the study; researchers followed most of them for at least six years.

Overall, about 17% of participants’ diets consisted of ultra-processed foods. People who consumed more of these foods tended to eat more calories overall, to have lower quality diets, and to be more likely to be obese and inactive.

During the study period, 821 people were diagnosed with diabetes.

Each 10-percentage point increase in the amount of ultra-processed foods in participants’ diets was associated with a 15% higher risk of developing diabetes, researchers report in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The connection between ultra-processed foods and diabetes persisted even after researchers accounted for the nutritional quality of people’s diets, any weight gain and other metabolic disorders.

The study wasn’t designed to determine whether or how ultra-processed foods might directly cause diabetes.

It’s possible, however, that chemical additives and industrial processing that alters the cellular structure of foods both play a role, Srour said.

One limitation of the study is the possibility that some participants with diabetes went undiagnosed, leading to an undercount of the number of diabetes cases.

Even so, the results add to evidence that ultra-processed foods can lead to health problems, said Priscila Machado, a researcher at Deakin University in Australia who wasn’t involved in the study.

“Ultra-processed foods have characteristics that stimulate overconsumption and the displacement of healthy foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, including their convenience, accessibility, affordability, big portion sizes, and the aggressive marketing and promotion of these foods,” Machado said by email.

People who have the time and resources to avoid ultra-processed foods can spot them pretty easily, however.

“To identify an ultra-processed product, check the list of ingredients,” Machado advised. “If you see a very long ingredients list with lots of chemical-sounding names, that’s probably a good indication that is an ultra-processed food.” 

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