According to new research presented at the 2020 European and International Obesity Congress, Highly processed foods loaded with fat, salt, sugar, and starch could be aging you prematurely.
Eating at least three servings of processed food a day is associated with shorter telomeres, chromosome structures that mark biological aging, which is linked to a higher risk of chronic illness, the study found.
Researchers from the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain, studied DNA samples and eating habits of 886 participants aged 20 and up, with an average age of 67 years old, part of a research survey from 2008.
They found that telomeres were nearly twice as likely to be short in people who ate three or more servings of processed food a day, compared to those that ate fewer than two servings a day.
The risk also appeared to increase with even a little more processed food each day. Participants who ate two to three servings a day showing a 29-40% higher risk of short telomeres than those that ate fewer than two, according to the data.
Processed foods are linked to a greater risk of long-term illness
Telomeres help stabilize our chromosomes and DNA.
As we age, cells divide and telomeres get shorter. Stress, inflammation, and poor diet can speed up this aging process.
Shorter telomeres are linked to a greater risk of age-related illnesses such as cancer and type 2 diabetes.
The researchers also found that ultra-processed foods were linked to issues such as depression (particularly among people who didn’t exercise), high blood pressure, and obesity. And there’s extensive previous evidence to link processed food to poor health consequences.
Participants of the study who ate more processed foods also tended to snack more, and consumed more saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol.
But what they weren’t eating was just as important — researchers found people who ate the most processed food were less likely to include nutritious whole foods like fruits and vegetables in their diet.
They also ate less protein, less fiber, fewer carbohydrates, and were less likely to consume healthy fats such as olive oil.
That dietary pattern of mostly whole plant foods, high in fiber, unsaturated fat, and micronutrients, is sometimes referred to as the Mediterranean diet.
Extensive research has linked the Mediterranean diet to health benefits like lower risk of disease, sustainable improvements to blood pressure and blood sugar, and healthier aging, too.
So, it may seem obvious that the opposite eating pattern, a diet high in junk food, is linked to faster aging.
This new study, however, is the first to show this kind of link between short telomeres and processed food overall. Previous research has also found sugary beverages, alcohol, and processed meats are linked to short telomeres, too.
These studies have been observational, however, so more research is needed to compare the effects of processed food over time, and better understand how they might impact our health long-term.