These Ultra-Processed Plant-Based Foods Might Increase the Risk For Many Diseases

Not all plant-based meals are healthy.

A close-up shot of a serving of golden, crispy French fries presented on a checkered paper. Accompan...
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There’s no question that eating fruits and vegetables are good for our overall health. Study after study has shown that a plant-based diet can benefit every organ system in our bodies. However, a recent study found that not all plant-based diets are created equally, nor are they equally healthy. In fact, ultra-processed plant-sourced foods (think: french fries) can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The study, which was published in The Lancet Regional Health-Europe, used a sample of about 118,000 UK adults between the ages of 40 and 69. The study was a collaboration between researchers in both the United Kingdom, France, and Brazil. The researchers classified food groups as either plant-sourced or animal-sourced, as well as ultra processed and non ultra processed. The data collection spanned more than a decade, with follow-up ending September 2021.

Previous studies have assessed the health impacts of ultra-processed foods, finding associations with mortality, cancer, and other negative health outcomes. But this study narrowed in more specifically on ultra-processed foods that are derived from plants (such as french fries, pastries, and even candy).

The researchers found that those whose plant-based diet consisted of mostly non ultra-processed foods had a lower risk of both fatal and non fatal cardiovascular events (i.e. heart disease). Meanwhile, ultra-processed plant based diets were associated with higher risk of such events. In fact, the researchers found that swapping out plant-sourced ultra-processed foods for non ultra processed, plant-based foods lowered the risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality.

This study adds to the growing body of literature about the importance of plant-based diets, but also how health benefits from a plant-based diet can potentially disappear when these foods are ultra processed.

“These findings advance current knowledge by highlighting that a higher intake of plant-sourced foods may only bring about better cardiovascular health outcomes when largely based on minimally processed foods while a higher intake of plant-sourced UPF may have detrimental effects on health,” the authors write.

This is likely because ultra-processing removes the important nutrients from such foods. As the authors explain, the absence of a “food matrix” in plant-sourced ultra processed foods may lead to lower levels of certain compounds that are associated with cardiovascular risk reduction.

While the findings are new, they are in line with the bulk of research on what diets are beneficial for long term health. Perhaps Michael Pollen said it best in his In Defense of Food: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

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