As mentioned in an earlier blog post, life expectancy is falling in North America and in the UK, and will shortly start falling in many other countries also. The neo-opioid epidemic has made a dent and suicides are up too, but the data are pretty clear; death rates from all major causes of death are increasing. These include diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer, all of which are increasing in frequency but decreasing in latency (ie emerging in progressively younger groups of patients).
Not so long ago, Pollyanna politicians and academics were telling us that we were all going to live longer. One gentleman proclaimed, rashly, that the first person to live to 1000 had already been born. These Panglossian predictions were largely based on reported improvements in life expectancy between 1900 and 2000, but most of the improvements were due to improved gynecology and infant health rather than the extension of healthy middle and old age.
There never was any intrinsic reason why those trends should continue – and as they say in financial circles, past performance is no guarantee of future results. This is equally true in human affairs and unfortunately, while medical science has progressed, our lifestyles have deteriorated.
Our tired and poor may be yearning to breath free but we are increasingly huddled in cities, hunched over desks, and being poisoned by junk foods supplied to an increasingly captive audience by an increasingly dominant oligopoly of food processors.
The main players are Associated British Foods, Coca Cola, Danone, General Foods, Kelloggs, Mars, Mondelez, Nestle, Pepsico, Quaker and Pepsico. Between them they control an unhealthily large % of the world’s diet, and they have their collective boot on our throats. There is little doubt that they have penned us in a human version of the CAFO system, and they are killing us.
A bowl of hi-sugar cereal with spray-on vitamins won’t finish you off, and neither will a chocolate bar or a cuppa-soup. But if you eat a diet largely consisting of processed foods, it will accelerate the ageing process and make you crazy and old before your time. Dead, too.
This is because the processed food universe causes chronic inflammation. Processed foods are lacking in key anti-inflammatory nutrients such as the omega 3 fatty acids, the polyphenols, the prebiotic fibers and the 1-3, 1-6 beta glucans. They are rich, however, in pro-inflammatory non-nutrients such as AGE and ALE compounds, omega 6 fatty acids and of course sugar.
The processed food diet is simultaneously calorie-dense (which causes overweight and obesity), nutrient-lite (which causes dysnutrition), and pro-inflammatory (which accelerates ageing and is the main driver of the lifestyle diseases).
Here is the main reason why our health is suffering and our lives are shortening; and why, in 2015, the US Institute of Health Metrics & Evaluation was forced to admit that poor diet had become the biggest cause of early (and preventable) death globally (1).
So processed foods are bad for us, but just when you thought that things couldn’t get any worse, along came Plan B From Outer Space; the rise and rise of ultra-processed foods.
Ultra-processed foods are the worst of processed foods. They are full of sugar and fat (empty calories), salt and artificial food additives, and they contain zero micro- and phyto-nutrients. This is a slightly wobbly definition, m’lud, but it works more or less, and it includes
- Packaged snacks
- Mass-produced baked goods
- Industrially-produced desserts
- Sodas and sweetened drinks
- Packaged meatballs
- Packaged nuggets made from poultry or fish
- Meat products that contain preservatives other than salt
- Instant noodles or soups
- Frozen or shelf-stable instant meals
- Hydrogenated oils
Dear reader, I know you are far too sophisticated to ever eat such foods. It’s everybody else … and it’s bad news for them. To begin with, these ultra-processed foods make people fat (2). They cause a range of gastrointestinal diseases (3). More seriously, a mere 10% intake of ultra-processed foods is associated with a greater than 10% increased risk in cancer (4).
Unhappily for us, and for our life expectancy, these ‘foods’ are becoming an ever-more important part of the food universe (5), thanks to Big Phood.
The future is bright, the future is Soylent Green.
1. Imamura F, Micha R, Khatibzadeh S, Fahimi S, Shi P, Powles J, Mozaffarian D; Global Burden of Diseases Nutrition and Chronic Diseases Expert Group (NutriCoDE). Dietary quality among men and women in 187 countries in 1990 and 2010: a systematic assessment. Lancet Glob Health. 2015 Mar;3(3):e132-42.
2. Canella DS, Levy RB, Martins AP, Claro RM, Moubarac JC, Baraldi LG, Cannon G, Monteiro CA. Ultra-processed food products and obesity in Brazilian households (2008-2009). PLoS One. 2014 Mar 25;9(3):e92752.
3. Schnabel L, Buscail C, Sabate JM, Bouchoucha M, Kesse-Guyot E, Allès B, Touvier M, Monteiro CA, Hercberg S, Benamouzig R, Julia C. Association Between Ultra-Processed Food Consumption and Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders: Results From the French NutriNet-Santé Cohort. Am J Gastroenterol. 2018 Jun 15.
4. Fiolet T, Srour B, Sellem L, Kesse-Guyot E, Allès B, Méjean C, Deschasaux M, Fassier P, Latino-Martel P, Beslay M, Hercberg S, Lavalette C, Monteiro CA, Julia C, Touvier M. Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort. BMJ. 2018 Feb 14;360:k322.