It’s no secret that overconsumption of overly processed foods—think fast-food offerings—can lead to health problems down the line including hypertension, obesity and type 2 diabetes. New research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, however, indicates consumption of these ultra-processed foods could also be accelerating aging on a cellular level.
The research team of Lucia Alonso-Pedrero et. al. examined 866 participants (645 men and 241 women), aged 57-91 (mean: 67.7), recruited by the Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra (SUN) Project between 1999-2018. DNA samples were taken to compare the telomere length of each participant. Telomeres are regions of repetitive nucleotide sequences at each end of a chromosome. As we age and cells divide, part of the telomere is lost; therefore, the length of these telomeres is considered a marker of biological aging.
“Ultra-processed food consumption is associated with chromosomal changes linked to biological aging,” the study authors wrote. “Short telomeres are a marker of biological aging at the cellular level, and the study suggests that diet may be causing the cells to age faster ... Research has associated ultra-processed foods with obesity, depression, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and various cancers,” the team wrote. “These conditions are often age-related and are linked to oxidative stress, inflammation and cellular aging which can also influence telomere length.”
From 2008 to the present, the individuals involved in the study provided detailed information via questionnaire about their eating habits, specifically their consumption of ultra-processed foods. For the purpose of this study, these were defined as “industrially manufactured substances composed of some mix of oils, fats, sugars, starch and proteins that contain little if any whole or natural foods.” At the study’s conclusion, the participants were broken into four groups based on their level of processed food consumption: less than 2 servings/day, 2 to 2.5 servings/day, 2.5 to 3 servings/day and more than 3 servings/day.
Using the lowest-consumption group as a baseline, the researchers concluded the likelihood of shortened telomeres—and, therefore, markers of increased cellular aging—was higher proportional to the amount of overly processed foods consumed. Those in the second-lowest consumption group (2-2.5 servings/day) were 29% more likely to have shortened telomeres, with that likelihood jumping to 40% for the next-highest consumption group and 82% for the highest consumption group. That highest consumption group (>3 servings/day) self-reported to have consumed more fats (specifically saturated fats), sodium, sugar-sweetened beverages, cholesterol, fast food and processed meats and fewer carbohydrates, protein, fiber, olive oil, fruits, vegetables and other micronutrients than the other groups. This group was also found more likely to have a family history of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and abnormal blood fats.
"Consumption of more than three servings per day of ultra-processed food almost doubles the risk of having short telomeres, a marker of biological aging at the cellular level,” said one of the study’s authors, Maira Bes-Rastrollo. “My recommendation is to decrease the consumption of ultra-processed food and promote the consumption of dietary patterns rich in fruit, vegetables and whole foods like the Mediterranean dietary pattern.”