Even just a single decade ago, while the term processed food was one most of us had heard, the concept of ultra-processed food was a new idea in the scientific and medical communities. In fact, it wasn’t until 2009 when Brazilian researchers linked certain food production practices to the skyrocketing rates of obesity and chronic disease that the term was coined.
Now, just over 10 years later, these so-called ultra-processed foods — made using food-derived substances with little to no whole food but lots of flavorings, colorings, emulsifiers and additives — have been found to play a role in some of the worst health problems around including:
- Metabolic syndrome
- Type 2 diabetes
And if all that weren’t enough, here’s where things just might get even worse…
New research by a team of scientists from the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain, has just discovered the serious consequences that consuming these low-cost, low-nutrition foods has on your DNA.
Shorter, shorter and even shorter
The researchers were investigating what they believed to be a likely link between ultra-processed foods and the shortening of telomeres — structures that form your DNA strands and are basically caps at the ends of your chromosomes.
You see, every single cell in your body has 23 pairs of chromosomes that contain your genetic code. This code is what makes your hair brown or blond and your eyes blue, green or brown. They can even determine whether or not you succumb to diseases such as breast cancer or heart disease.
And while the telomeres that cap sit at the ends of your chromosomes don’t contain genetic information themselves, they’re vital for preserving the stability and integrity of your chromosomes. And therefore, the DNA that every cell in your body relies on to function depends on these telomeres.
Yet, as you age, your telomeres get shorter and shorter. This happens because each time one of your cells divides, a small portion of the telomere is lost.
That’s the length of your telomeres is considered to be a marker of biological age. It also means that if anything damages those telomeres and accelerates their loss of length, it also accelerates your biological aging.
And that’s exactly what those Spanish scientists were afraid was happening due to ultra-processed foods.
Twice as likely to be short
To test their theory, the researchers gathered DNA samples from 886 participants along with accurate records of their daily food intake.
And it turns out that their theory was right on the money!
Once the researchers separated participants into categories of ultra-processed food intake and took a look at their telomere length, they found that compared to low consumers those with:
- Medium-low consumption (two to two and a half servings/day) had a 29 percent increased risk of shortened telomeres.
- Medium-high consumption (more than two and a half to three servings/day) had a 40 percent increased risk of shorter telomeres.
- High consumption (more than three servings per day) had the greatest increased risk of shortened telomeres ringing in at a whopping high of 82 percent!
Put simply, the scientists say that this study shows just how much a role diet plays in causing the cells of your body to age faster.
Additionally, the team also found that ultra-processed food intake was associated with a higher risk of depression (especially in patients with low levels of physical activity), hypertension, overweight/obesity and all-cause mortality.
So eating those foods can make you age faster and leave you overweight and depressed with high blood pressure and a greater risk of death.
That’s a scary thought.
Avoiding the ultra-processed food trap
So how do you know if a food is ultra-processed so that you can skip it and make a healthier choice for your DNA and your life?
Well, the easiest way to ensure that none of these telomere-shortening foods slip into your diet is to simply stick to fresh foods that you prepare yourself.
That means taking a hard pass on prepared foods like frozen pizzas and casseroles, packaged soups, instant noodles, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, snack cakes and basically any food that looks far removed from any whole food source.
If it’s a convenience food that can go from package to table with little more than heating it up or just removing the packaging, chances are it’s going to fall into the ultra-processed category.
Does that mean preparing dinner just got 10 times harder? Not necessarily. Frozen vegetables are generally a safe choice. They are consider processed, but not ultra. The same goes for dried beans, canned vegetables and dried grains.
Does it mean you have to give up pizza? Not necessarily. Make your own at home using fresh ingredients.
While it might take more time each day to prepare your own fresh, whole food meals, science says it’s worth it in order to protect your DNA and slow down the aging process.
Editor’s note: I’m not surprised about the Mediterranean diet’s effects on aging. Consider the beautiful Greek Island of Ikaria, where living to 100 is not unusual, dementia is rare and Alzheimer’s is virtually non-existent. Some experts tie it to the gatekeeper of disease: the body’s master hormone. Click here to learn more about it…
What Is Ultra-Processed Food? — CookingLight