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The Evidence Against Eating Ultra-Processed Foods Continues to Mount

By Bill Manci
April 9, 2020
The Evidence Against Eating Ultra-Processed Foods Continues to Mount image

One of the fundamental principles of The Paleo Diet® is the elimination of highly processed foods. These modern food items were not part of a natural hunter-gatherer diet, and the science continues to suggest they shouldn’t be part of ours. A recent study from two medical groups in France supports this idea, providing clear evidence that an ultra-processed diet should be avoided.

The research teams from the Centre de Recherche Epidémiologies et Statistique, Sorbonne Paris Cité and the Départment de Santé Publique, Hôpital Avicenne—both in Bobigny, France—examined how ultra-processed foods affect the overall risk of mortality in adults 45 years of age and older1.

Participants in these studies included 44,551 people from the larger, multi-year duration NutriNet-Santé Study2 (a total of 158,361 people), which included 73.1 percent women, with a mean age of 56.7 years.

Each participant kept records of his or her food choices using the NOVA food classification system.3 The system includes an ultra-processed category, defined as foods that contain ingredients with a technological or cosmetic purpose, rather than a purely nutritional purpose (e.g., preservatives, binders, texture enhancers, colors).

Ultra-processed foods accounted for an average of 14.4 percent of the total weight of food consumed by the participants, and 29.1 percent of the total energy. Additionally, consumption of these foods was most associated with people at the lower end of the age range (45 to 64), who had a lower income, lower educational attainment, were more likely to live alone, and who had a higher body-mass index and lower levels of physical activity.

It’s worth noting that this was a correlation study. Causal relationships can be elusive, even under strict controls. While additional direct studies are required to confirm the results, this study found a significant link between ultra-processed food consumption and “a higher risk of all-cause mortality.”

Recognizing that their study only showed a correlational relationship, the study authors proposed several hypotheses to explain the correlation:

Several hypotheses could explain the associations between increasing ultra-processed food consumption and higher mortality risk... Studies have documented that high ultra-processed food consumption was associated with unhealthy dietary patterns involving high intake of calories, fats, sugars, and salt. Those dietary factors could be associated with the development of noncommunicable diseases, which further lead to higher mortality risk. Studies have estimated that reducing saturated and trans fats, salt, and added sugar from the diet could present major advantages, such as preventing cardiovascular deaths.

These hypotheses and claims ring true to devotees of The Paleo Diet and provide further reassurance that conscientious eating patterns promote health and well-being. In particular, we should avoid overconsuming sugars and salt. Indeed, The Paleo Diet founder, Dr. Loren Cordain, has spent most of his career uncovering the perils of processed foods and the Westernized diet. His research emphasizes the benefits of simpler, less refined and less adulterated choices.4,5,6

A review of the aforementioned study and a follow-up analysis by CNN noted that 61 percent of the American diet consists of ultra-processed foods; in Canada it rises to 62 percent, and in the U.K. it’s 63 percent.7 Clearly, adoption of a diet that places an emphasis on simpler types of foods—and which specifically avoids ultra-processed foods—by the population of some developed countries, including the U.S., has a long way to go.

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    1. Schnabel, L., E. Kesse-Guyot, B. Allés et al. 2019. Association between ultraprocessed food consumption and risk of mortality among middle-aged adults in France. JAMA Intern. Med. 179(4):490-498. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2018.7289
    2. Hercberg, S., K. Castebon, S. Czernichow et al. 2010. The NutriNet-Santé Study: a web-based prospective study on the relationship between nutrition and health and determinants of dietary patterns and nutritional status. BMC Public Health. 10(1):242. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-10-242
    3. Monteiro, C.A., G. Cannon, J.C. Moubarac et al. 2018. The UN Decade of Nutrition, the NOVA food classification and the trouble with ultra-processing. Public Health Nutr. 21(1):5-17. doi:10.1017/S1368980017000234
    4. Cordain, L., S.B. Eaton, A. Sebastian et al. 2005. Origins and evolution of the western diet: health implications for the 21st century. Amer. J. Clin. Nutr. 81(2):341–354.
    5. Aschwanden, C. 2015. The paleo diet: should you eat like a caveman? The Washington Post. 1924ede3e54a_story.html
    6. Karlsen, M. 2019. The paleo diet: what’s the story? Center for Nutrition Studies.
    7. Scutti, S. 2019. Avoiding 'ultraprocessed' foods may increase lifespan, study says.

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