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Junk food responsible for over 1/5 of deaths in middle age

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) such as burgers, sausages and pizza are one of the world's biggest killers.

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serving of fried onion rings served with a dipping sauce
Researchers argue that ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are too common in Western diets and cause unnecessary deaths in middle age.
(Nature's Charm via Shutterstock)

By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

Junk food is responsible for more than a fifth of deaths in middle age, according to new research.

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) such as burgers, sausages and pizzas are one of the world's biggest killers, according to the report published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

They cause almost 22 percent of premature deaths among 30 to 69-year-olds in Brazil, the study found.

Packed with trans fats, salt and sugar, they are even more harmful than previously feared.

They range from bacon, ready-to-eat meals, cookies, cakes and white bread to tinned soups, sauces, ice cream, confectionery, doughnuts and sodas.

junk food, sweets and unhealthy eating concept - close up of chocolate pieces, jelly beans, glazed donuts and cake on wooden table
Junk food causes obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers, and other diseases and death in middle age.
(Ground Picture via Shutterstock)

They make up more than 60 percent of an average person's menu if they eat a traditional 'Western diet'.

The lifestyle is fuelling rising cases of high blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke, cancer, diabetes and dementia.

Lead author Dr. Eduardo Nilson, of the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, said: "Previous modeling studies have estimated the health and economic burden of critical ingredients, such as sodium, sugar and trans fats, and specific foods or drinks, such as sugar-sweetened beverages."

His team used data from nationally representative dietary surveys from 2019 to estimate intakes by age group and gender.

They calculated the proportion of total deaths that were attributable to UPFs - and worked out the impact of reduction by 10, 20 and 50 percent.

Dr. Nilson said: "To our knowledge, no study to date has estimated the potential impact of UPFs on premature deaths.

"Knowing the deaths attributable to the consumption of these foods and modeling how changes in dietary patterns can support more effective food policies might prevent disease and premature deaths."

Consumption ranged from 13 to 21 percent of total food intake, far less than the average American.

A total of 541,260 Brazilians aged 30 to 69 died prematurely in 2019, of whom 261,061 were from preventable, non-communicable diseases.

The model found that approximately 57,000 deaths that year could be attributed to the consumption of UPFs.

This corresponded to 21.8 percent of all deaths from preventable noncommunicable diseases in this age group.

Dr. Nilson said UPFs have steadily replaced the consumption of traditional whole foods, such as rice and beans, over time in Brazil.

Reducing consumption and promoting healthier food choices may require multiple interventions and public health measures.

These include fiscal and regulatory policies, changing food environments, strengthening the implementation of food-based dietary guidelines and improving consumer knowledge, attitudes and behavior.

Reducing the consumption of UPFs by 10 to 50 percent could potentially prevent around 5,900 to 29,300 premature deaths in Brazil each year.

Dr. Nilson said: "Consumption of UPFs is associated with many disease outcomes, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers, and other diseases, and it represents a significant cause of preventable and premature deaths among Brazilian adults.

"Even reducing consumption of UPFs to the levels of just a decade ago would reduce associated premature deaths by 21 percent. Policies that disincentivize the consumption of UPFs are urgently needed.”

Having a tool to estimate the deaths attributable to can help countries estimate the burden of dietary changes and design more effective food policy options, he said.

The study follows calls for junk food to carry government health warnings - just like cigarettes.

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