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A Plant-Based Diet Can Have Adverse Health Effects if Ultra-Processed Food Is Included, a New Study Shows

A U.K.-based study found that the health detriments of ultra-processed foods apply even to plant-based nutrition

A plant-based diet is not without exception when it comes to health risks, as a new U.K.-based study confirmed that participants who ate a diet high in plant-based ultra-processed food (UPF) were more likely to experience negative cardiovascular health factors compared to those who ate an unprocessed plant-based diet. Keep scrolling to learn more about the study and its findings.

U.K. researchers connected ultra-processed plant-based diets to health health impacts

Researchers looked at the eating habits of more than 118,000 people in England, Scotland and Wales between the ages of 40 and 69 and compared their diets with their medical records to arrive at these results.

Ultimately, an increase in plant-sourced, non-processed food consumption was associated with a 7% lower risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and a 13% lower risk of cardiovascular-related mortality. On the other hand, plant-sourced UPF consumption was associated with a 5% increased risk and a 12% higher mortality. This isn’t the case exclusively for plant-based UPFs, though, as the contribution of both plant and animal-based UPFs was linked to higher cardiovascular risk and mortality.

“We observed that higher dietary contribution of plant-sourced non-UPF were associated with a lower risk of fatal and nonfatal cardiovascular events, while contribution of plant-sourced UPF was associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular events,” the study, which was published in The Lancet Europe, notes.

Due to their composition and processing, UPF-rich diets may contribute to issues including abnormally high levels of fatty lipids in the blood, plaque buildup and thickening of the arteries, hypertension, insulin resistance, obesity and metabolic disorders, the study found. This is due to the high content of unhealthy fats, sodium and added sugars in UPF.

“Modern plant-sourced diets may incorporate a range of ultra-processed foods (UPF), such as sugar-sweetened beverages, snacks, confectionery, but also the ‘plant-sourced’ sausages, nuggets, and burgers that are produced with ingredients originating from plants and marketed as meat and dairy substitutes,” the study says.

Why do UPFs pose a threat to your health?

Ultra-processed food has long been linked to potential negative heart health side effects, and ultra-processed foods account for 58% of total energy in the average U.S. diet, according to the American College of Cardiology.

“When foods are processed it may remove beneficial nutrients and other naturally occurring benefits, while adding non-beneficial nutrients and food additives,” the college explains. “Processing also changes the physical structure of foods. The consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked with being overweight/obese, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome and Type 2 diabetes.”

How to identify UPFs in your diet

Ultra processed snacks

The question now becomes: how can you tell whether a food is ultra-processed? Experts say you can check to see if the list of ingredients on a particular food product contains at least one item characteristic of the NOVA ultra-processed food group. This classification system groups foods according to the extent and purpose of the processing they undergo.

This means you’ll be looking for food substances never or rarely used in kitchens, including high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated or interesterified oils and hydrolysed proteins. Alternatively, you could look for classes of additives designed to make the final product more tasty, like flavors, flavor enhancers, colors, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, sweeteners, thickeners, and anti-foaming, bulking, carbonating, foaming, gelling and glazing agents.

Are all processed foods bad for your health?

The semantics of this topic can get tricky, because it sometimes sounds like any food even remotely processed puts you in danger, but that’s not the case, and for some food, processing is necessary for keeping it healthy to consume. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that even heating, freezing, dicing or juicing a food makes it processed. This means even healthy nutrients like vegetables are technically processed food once they’re frozen. “Ultra-processed food takes things further,” says the American Heart Association.

“Nutritionists started using the term about 10 years ago, and again, definitions vary. One diet classification system called NOVA sums it up as ‘snacks, drinks, ready meals and many other products created mostly or entirely from substances extracted from foods or derived from food constituents with little if any intact food.’ Examples would include packaged chips, soft drinks and candy.”

Read on for expert tips on heart health:

DASH vs. the Mediterranean Diet: Heart-Healthy, But Very Different

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Quercetin for Heart Health: MD Says It’s Key To Lowering Blood Pressure + Cholesterol — and It Costs Just Pennies a Day!

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