Scientists at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have found in a new study that ultra-processed foods may be linked to poor heart health.
The new preliminary research will be presented at the 2019 edition of the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions that will be held in Philadelphia a few days from now.
Ultra-processed foods are common in the diets of many people in the United States. Researchers say that they account for more than half of the daily calorie intake of an average American.
Now, researchers at the CDC have found that these unhealthy foods are associated with reduced cardiovascular health. They observed that a rise in calorie intake from ultra-processed foods led to a matching decline in general heart health.
Adults who consumed such foods had less-than-ideal cardiovascular health.
Heart thrives on healthy foods
Researchers categorized foods into different groups on the basis of industrial processing they pass through, both the degree and purpose.
Foods that were described as “ultra-processed” were those made mostly or entirely of compounds obtained from foods. These substances include, most notably, added sugars, starches, and fats. They also include additives, such as colors, flavors, or emulsifiers.
Among the examples of ultra-processed foods are packaged snacks, instant soups, chicken nuggets, soft drinks, and processed meats. They also include many of the so-called “convenience foods.”
These kinds of foods deprive the heart of the key nutrients it needs for good health and proper functioning. Salt, sugar, saturated fat, and other compounds in them increase the risk of a heart problem at the same time.
“Healthy diets play an important role in maintaining a healthy heart and blood vessels,” said epidemiologist Zefeng Zhang, MD, Ph.D., of the CDC. “Eating ultra-processed foods often displace healthier foods that are rich in nutrients, like fruit, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein, which are strongly linked to good heart health.”
Ultra-processed foods are less ideal for cardiovascular health
For their investigation, the CDC researchers used data collected between 2011 and 2016 in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). They reviewed the results from nearly 13,500 adults who took part in a 24-hour dietary recall. The subjects, aged 20 years or older, also responded to questions regarding their cardiovascular health.
The investigators defined cardiovascular health, according to Life’s Simple 7 recommendations of the American Heart Association (AHA). They described it in terms of a healthy diet, sufficient physical activity, healthy body weight, and avoidance of smoking as well as healthy cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels.
A five percent increase in calorie intake from ultra-processed foods led to a comparable regression in overall cardiovascular health, the researchers observed.
They found that adults who got roughly 70 percent of their daily calories from such foods were about 50 percent less likely to have “ideal” heart health. That was in comparison to those who obtained 40 percent, or lower, of calories from ultra-processed foods.
Donna Arnett, dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, said the study highlighted the importance of a healthy diet to heart health. The past-president of the AHA advised getting rid of processed foods and replacing them with healthier options.
“For example, instead of grabbing that loaf of white bread, grab a loaf of bread that’s whole grain or wheat bread,” she said. “Try replacing a hamburger with fish once or twice a week.”
These little changes can build up to have a positive effect on heart health, according to Arnett.