As we’re hunkered down at home, some of us have seen an influx of processed foods creeping into our kitchens… and mouths! Well, here’s some incentive to get the COVID junk out of the house once and for all. Researchers at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain found that ultra-processed foods (think pastries, processed meats, and ice cream) accelerate the aging process. The scientists involved in the study conducted a cross-sectional study in 866 individuals, aged 57 to 91 years, and looked at the relationship between diet and telomere length, a marker for aging. Telomeres are short nucleotide sequences found on the end of chromosomes that protect genetic information. They shorten with each cell division, which creates the process of aging. So shorter telomere length means increased aging, and this shortening (aka aging) can be accelerated with environmental factors, including the daily consumption of ultra-processed foods. Processed food intake was measured using a 136-item food frequency questionnaire and broken down into categories: lowest being fewer than 2 servings per day; medium-low between 2 and 2.5 servings per day, medium-high between 2.5 and 3 servings per day, and high 3 or more servings per day.
After adjusting for confounding factors (such as age, physical activity, smoking status, co-morbidities like diabetes and cancer, etc.), researchers found that those who reported consuming more than 3 servings of ultra-processed foods per day were significantly more likely to have shortened telomere length when compared to those who consumed less than 2 servings daily. Those consuming 2 and 2.5 servings daily were also more likely to have shortened telomere length. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
Takeaway: Researchers who conducted the study concluded that decreasing processed food consumption could help in slowing telomere shortening and the aging process. They also stressed the fact that high consumption of ultra-processed food and shortened telomere length aren’t just associated with accelerated aging; they’re also associated with a higher likelihood of disease, increased prescription drug use, hospitalizations and even premature death. If you’re in the habit of consuming ultra-processed foods, first, focus on decreasing consumption to 1 serving per day. If that’s easy for you, go to 1 serving per week, or better yet, none at all. If you really like pastries and other baked goods, make healthier options at home using whole food, gluten free flours, unprocessed sugars, and dark chocolate to satisfy your sweet tooth. For ice cream, try this! As an additional deterrent, keep in mind that consuming processed foods is strongly associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer.