According to a study, processed foods are linked to a shorter lifespan. The study focused on highly processed foods, such as ready meals, energy bars and ice cream.

Frequently consuming foods with salt, added sugar, and fats, such as those that come in a package, can contribute to weight gain and increase your risk of metabolic problems. You may turn to the vending machine when hunger pangs, but a new study suggests that ultra-processed foods, those manufactured industrially with multiple ingredients and additives, can cost you years of life.

The study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, used self-reported data from 44,551 participants in the French NutriNet-Santé study, an ongoing study that began in 2009. Study participants shared their diaries food over a median period of 7.1 years. The average age at the start of the study was 56.7 years and 73% of the participants were women.

In the study group, ultra-processed foods made up nearly 34% of participants’ average daily calorie intake. The researchers observed that a 10% increase in the consumption of this type of food was linked to a 14% increased risk of early death from all causes. In other words, the study authors observed that when ultra-processed foods made up a larger portion of a person’s diet, they appeared to have an increased risk of early death.

What exactly is considered “processed” food?

The study defined processed foods using the NOVA food classification system, which classifies food products into four groups. Group 1 foods are unprocessed or minimally processed foods that come directly from plants or animals, such as fresh fruit and milk. Group 2 foods are substances derived from unprocessed foods, such as oils, butter, sugar and salt. Group 3 foods are “processed” and made by adding salt, oil and other ingredients to unprocessed or minimally processed foods, such as fruit in syrup and fresh bread. Group 4 foods are “ultra-processed” and include soft drinks, ice cream, energy bars and ready meals.

When you make processed foods, you usually add salt, sugar, and fats, and you probably take away the vitamins, minerals, and fiber that are naturally present in those foods. Both aspects are of concern: what is added and how it affects health, and what is removed and how it affects health. Based on their findings and France’s national nutritional requirements, the study authors recommend reducing the amount of ultra-processed foods consumed, in favor of fresh, unprocessed foods.

How can processed foods be harmful to your health?

Limitations of the study include that participants self-reported their food diary and that participants are more health conscious than the general population, which may mean that death rates and food consumption ultra-processed are probably lower than those of the general population. The follow-up period was relatively short, the researchers note, and the majority of participants were women. The study authors say more research is needed to confirm their findings, but they suggest the nutrient profile of these ultra-processed foods, additives and industrial food processing may be to blame.

Here’s how they explain it:

Nutritional quality: On average, ultra-processed foods tend to be lower in fiber and vitamins, and higher in sugar, salt, and saturated fatty acids. But the study took nutritional quality into account, which probably doesn’t fully explain their findings, they say.

Food additives: In animal studies, certain food additives have been shown to have effects on chronic disease. According to a review published in November 2017 in the journal Frontiers in Immunology, thickeners, preservatives and artificial sweeteners can affect immune function, and contribute to metabolic diseases, such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Plastic packaging: Ultra-processed foods are often wrapped in plastic, the substances of which can migrate into the food. BPA (bisphenol A), commonly found in some plastics and canned goods, can disrupt hormone levels and affect women’s reproductive health, according to research published in October 2015 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Compounds formed during processing: Certain compounds, such as acrylamide and acrolein, that form due to high temperature heating may be associated with an increased incidence of cardiometabolic diseases, according to a study published in August 2014 in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

4 tips to eat less processed foods

In general, you should try to eat foods that are unprocessed or minimally processed, but it can be difficult to avoid heavily processed foods. The study results remind us, however, that we can make healthier, more informed choices.

4 ways to make small changes:

Read the nutrition facts labels and choose the option with the least sodium and added sugar. Aim to consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Calories from added sugar should not exceed 10% per day; for a 2,000 calorie diet, that’s about 12 teaspoons.

Look for a minimum number of ingredients and ingredients you recognize in packaged foods.

Cook dinner at home as much as possible instead of going out to restaurants or having ready meals delivered.

Buy more fresh fruit than processed fruit (canned or in syrup, for example). Frozen fruits are picked when they are freshest and are also a healthy option.

It is important to remember that health is complex; it is not a single thing, but a collection of small things. Including these last 4.

* criptom strives to transmit health knowledge in a language accessible to all. In NO CASE, the information given can not replace the opinion of a health professional.