Processed Food Increase Risk for Type 2 Diabetes

Store-bought chicken nuggets, jelly donuts and energy bars may taste delicious. But a large, new study warns that the more of these and other highly processed foods you consume, the greater your risk for type 2 diabetes.

Every 10% increase in the amount of “ultra-processed” food translated into a 15% increase in the risk for developing diabetes, according to the French study.

Lead author Bernard Srour noted that his team previously established a link between higher consumption of ultra-processed food and a higher risk for cancer, heart disease, depression and premature death.

Dr. Srour is a postdoctoral researcher in nutritional epidemiology at the University of Paris.

The Big Q: What are ultra-processed foods?

The Big A: They are pre-packaged products subjected to a wide array of industrial manipulations.

They may contain preservatives, artificial flavors, texturizing agents, food additives, sugars, non-sugar sweeteners, and coloring.

Some examples include instant noodles, chicken nuggets, soft drinks, candy, margarine, pastries, breakfast cereals and energy bars. Also, flavored milk, pre-seasoned vegetables, “instant” sauces, ready-to-heat pizza, and purported “health” products like powdered or fortified meals.

Such convenience foods are popular across Western developed nations, his team said, representing between 25 and 60% of the modern diet.

At the same time, type 2 diabetes is a growing public health concern. The team noted that an estimated 425-M people had diabetes worldwide in 2017. That’s projected to rise to 629-M by Y 2045.

The Big Q2: So, why might ultra-processed foods be fueling that increase?

The Big A: The authors say that their low nutritional value due to high levels of fats, salt and sugar are only part of the story. Problematic chemical compounds that disrupt and degrade the digestive process are implicated as well.

Packaging materials may also be troublesome, they said.

For the study, researchers analyzed records of nearly 105,000 French adults between Ys 2009 and 2019. Average age was about 43. Participants completed about 6 24-hr food diaries over 6 years.

After stacking diets up against yearly health questionnaires, the team determined that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to a significantly higher risk for diabetes.

The researchers acknowledge that ultra-processed food consumption was generally higher among smokers, the obese, less active participants, and those who ate more red and processed meats and less whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

In essence, that means other bad lifestyle habits could drive up diabetes risk too.

So, while Dr. Srour said it is “very plausible” that ultra-processed food ups diabetes risk, he noted that “a direct causal link could not be established from this single study.” His team plans more research to explore the connection.

Some foods are more processed than others. “Potato chips are more processed than frozen potatoes, and frozen or canned green beans are more processed than fresh. But that processing is not the villain. It is the food choices we make.”

Build 75% of your menu around Real plant foods: fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and make the remaining 25% lean protein and low-fat dairy.

The findings were published online 16 December in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

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