People who consume large quantities of industrially processed junk products are more prone to exhibit a change in their chromosomes associated with aging, new research presented on Tuesday at an online medical conference says.
Three or more servings of ultra-processed food per day double the odds that strands of DNA and proteins, known as telomeres, found on the end of chromosomes, would shorten, in comparison to people who rarely eat such ‘foods,’ researchers reported at the European and International Conference on Obesity.
Short telomeres are an indicator of biological aging at the cellular level, and the study demonstrates that diet is a factor in making the cells age faster. Although the link is rather strong, the casual correlation between eating highly processed foods and diminished telomeres is still relatively speculative, the authors of the study note. Each human cell has 23 pairs of chromosomes that include our genetic code.
Telomeres do not contain genetic information but are crucial for preserving the capacity and integrity of chromosomes and, by extension, the DNA that all the cells depend on to function. As we age, our telomeres shorten by themselves because each time a cell splits, part of the telomere is lost.
That downsizing has long been accepted as a marker of biological age. Researchers led by Maria Bes-Rastrollo and Amelia Marti, both of the University of Navarra in Spain, decided to explore the recognized connection between the regular consumption of ultra-processed foods and shrinking telomeres.
Not Real Food
Previous studies had indicated a possible correlation between sugar-sweetened drinks, processed meats, and other types of products filled with saturated fats and sugar, but the findings were somewhat ambiguous.
Ultra-processed foods are industrially manufactured substances that include some mix of oils, fats, sugars, starch, and proteins that have little or no whole or natural foods. They normally include artificial flavorings, colorings, emulsifiers, preservatives, and other harmful additives that enhance shelf-life and profit margins.
The same properties, though, also mean that such products are nutritionally empty or poor in comparison to unprocessed alternatives, the scientists said. In addition, all early studies have shown strong links between ultra-processed foods and hypertension, obesity, depression, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
Marti and her colleagues analyzed health data for almost 900 people aged 55 or older who offered DNA samples in 2008 and provided detailed information about their eating habits every two years after they gave the DNA sample. The 645 men and 241 women were equally split into four groups, depending on their consumption of ultra-processed products.
Those participants in the high-intake group were the most prone to have a family history of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and abnormal blood fats. They also ate fewer foods associated with the Mediterranean diet, such as fiber, olive oil, fruits, vegetables, and nuts.
In comparison to the group who consumed the fewest ultra-processed foods, the other three demonstrated an enhanced likelihood – 29 percent, 40 percent, and 82 percent, respectively – of having shortened telomeres.
A paper describing the findings of this research has been published in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.