Diets rich in ultra-processed foods raise risk of dying from COPD

U.S. dietary data point to 26% higher risk with heavy fast-food consumption

Margarida Maia, PhD avatar

by Margarida Maia, PhD |

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An illustration of various healthy foods.

People with diets rich in ultra-processed foods, those typically loaded with harmful additives and preservatives, have a 26% higher risk of dying from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a study drawing on U.S. data reports.

Such a daily diet — one roughly consisting of more than 40% of ultra-processed foods — also places people at a 10% higher risk of dying from chronic respiratory diseases in general, like chronic bronchitis or asthma, compared with those whose diets are much lower in such foods.

Researchers expect that these findings can be generalized to other Western countries with diets similar to those of the U.S.

“Our research suggests that limiting the intake of ultra-processed foods could significantly improve respiratory health and reduce the risk of mortality from chronic respiratory diseases,” Tefera Mekonnen, the study’s first author and a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide, in Australia, and the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI), said in a university press release.

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Additives and other ‘contaminants’ common in ultra-processed foods

The study, “Ultra-processed food consumption and risk of chronic respiratory diseases mortality among adults: evidence from a prospective cohort study,” was published in the European Journal of Nutrition.

COPD causes permanent damage to the airways and air sacs, making breathing increasingly difficult. While the disease’s exact causes are not fully known, they are thought to arise from long-term exposure to irritants, such as cigarette smoke and air pollutants.

Evidence also suggests that an unhealthy diet increases a person’s risk of COPD and other chronic respiratory diseases. However, it’s unclear whether diets favoring ultra-processed foods also raise a risk of dying from these diseases, the researchers noted.

Ultra-processed foods, while “cost-effective [and] readily accessible,” can contain “deleterious … contaminants” rarely or never found in household kitchens, along with preservatives to prolong their shell life and additives to make them look tastier and more appealing.

“Intriguingly, these elements have been associated with various health risks including inflammation, carcinogenesis, genotoxic effects, and disruptions in the gut microbiota,” the researchers wrote.

Mekonnen and colleagues looked at data covering 96,607 adults, ages 55 to 74, who took part in the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial conducted at 10 U.S. centers between November 1993 and September 2001. The trial was sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health in the U.S.

‘Fast foods’ made up over 40% of daily diet of heavy consumers

Participants, starting in 1998, were asked to report how often they consumed various food groups, from unprocessed or minimally processed to ultra-processed groups, using a self-administered food frequency questionnaire.

Results showed that, on average, 31.2% of respondents reported a daily diet consisting of ultra-processed foods, a category that included breakfast cereals; carbonated drinks; savory packaged snacks; pre-prepared pies, pasta, and pizza dishes; burgers and/or hot dogs; instant cooked vegetables with ready-made sauces; ice cream; and chocolate.

People who ate more ultra-processed foods — at least 42.7% of all food groups consumed in a day — were 1.4 years younger than those who consumed the least (18.8% or less daily). They also were more likely to be smokers and to have diabetes, high blood pressure, and emphysema, a type of COPD.

Likewise, higher consumers of ultra-processed food had a higher total energy intake, spent less time engaging in physical activity, had a lower socioeconomic status, and consumed more unhealthy foods, including those rich in carbs and unhealthy fats.

“Consumption of cookies and pies, milk desserts, processed meat and sausage, sugary drinks and sweet products, potato salad, and ready-to-eat salty snacks [was] much higher” among people with diets rich in ultra-processed foods, the researchers wrote.

Study findings align with previous research “demonstrating that [ultra-processed food] consumption is inversely … related to dietary quality … lower intake of fruits and vegetables, and positively related to total fat, cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans-fatty acid intake,” they added.

Mortality risk based on unhealthy food choices seen as stronger for women

Over a median 16.8 years of follow-up, 28,700 deaths were reported from all causes, including 4,092 due to chronic respiratory diseases, 2,015 from lung cancer, and 1,536 related to COPD.

People who consumed 42.7% or more of ultra-processed foods had a 18% higher risk of all-cause death compared with those who consumed 18.8% or less. High consumers of ultra-processed foods also had a 10% higher risk of death from chronic respiratory diseases and a 26% higher risk of death from COPD.

A 5% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed food consumption in a person’s total diet significantly associated with a 9% increased risk of all-cause death, a 12% higher risk of death from chronic respiratory diseases, and a 17% increased risk of death from COPD. This suggested that as the intake of such foods rises, so does the risk of dying.

The association between ultra-processed food consumption and the risk of all-cause death and COPD-related death were more pronounced among women than men. Women in the highest consumption group had a 37% higher risk of dying from COPD than those in the lowest consumption group.

“Public health efforts should be invested in … structural interventions aimed at increasing access to convenient, and affordable minimally processed foods,” the researchers wrote, adding that “the promotion of healthy, minimally processed foods for all individuals is critically important.”

Further studies are need to confirm these findings and to better understand the biological and immunological mechanisms underlying the link between ultra-processed food consumption and the risk of death.