As we get older, we know that eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help us live longer. But what about foods that accelerate aging? Apparently, there’s a specific type that’s wreaking havoc on our bodies — ultra-processed food.
You’re probably already aware that gorging on a frozen pizza every night isn’t the best thing for you, but what the new research shows is pretty alarming as far as what processed foods are actually doing to our bodies.
Researchers from the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain, have discovered that eating ultra-processed food (UPF) is significantly linked to cellular aging. According to Harvard Health, “UPF are manufactured food products comprising the building blocks of naturally occurring foods: protein isolates, sugars, fats, and oils. They may also contain additives like artificial colors and flavors or stabilizers.” This includes foods like frozen meals, packaged breads, soft drinks, hot dogs, cold cuts, bacon and sausage, fast food, packaged cookies, cakes, salty snacks, and even “health foods” like sweetened yogurts, cereals, and protein powders.
The new study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, aimed to find out if eating UPF affected aging at the cellular level. The researchers used data from the SUN project — another study which began recruiting in the year 2000. Participants in the SUN project are required to fill out questionnaires every two years. In 2008, SUN participants over age 55 took part in a genetic study that was used for the new research. 886 of them, with an average age of 68, provided saliva samples for DNA analysis and self-reported their daily food consumption.
The team analyzed cellular aging by measuring the length of telomeres, the structures located at the ends of our chromosomes. Telomeres don’t actually contain any genetic information, but they preserve the integrity of our chromosomes by keeping their ends from fraying. As we get older, telomeres become shorter and less effective, and scientists consider them to be markers of biological age.
The researchers assorted the participants into four groups according to how many UPF they ate each day:
- low: under 2 servings
- medium-low: 2 to 2.5 servings
- medium-high: 2.5 to 3 servings
- high: more than 3 servings
According to their findings, there was a significant association between the amount of UPF people consumed and the length of their telomeres. Compared with those in the “low” group, those in the medium-low group were 29 percent more likely to have shorter telomeres, while the medium-high group was 40 percent more likely. What’s even more striking was that those in the high group were a whopping 82 percent more likely to have shortened telomeres! In other words, the more UPF someone ate, the faster their cells were aging.
And that’s not all. The study authors also discovered that the more UPF someone ate, the more likely they were to struggle with conditions like diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and even depression!
The consumption of ultra-processed food is on the rise worldwide, with 58 percent of the calories in America coming from these unhealthy sources. However, these findings contribute to the notion that for good health, real, whole foods are always our best bet. When you can, try to favor fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains in your diet, as minimal processing helps these foods to maintain their nutrient density that keeps us — and our cells — young and healthy.