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While you know by now that processed foods are bad for your overall health—there’s no denying their convenience. This is why they make up so much of Americans’ diets. But just what are all those foods doing to your heart health? And while an occasional trip through the drive-thru won’t hurt, just how much ultra-processed food is too much?
Research presented at the American Heart Association’s (AHA) 2019 Scientific Sessions looked at just how much ultra-processed food is putting heart health at risk. (Ultra-processed foods are defined as those that are mostly made up of fats, starches, added sugar, and additives such as artificial flavors. (Think: soda, processed meats, and packaged salty snacks and convenience foods.)
Researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyzed data collected from nearly 13,500 adults over the course of five years for the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Participants completed a 24-hour dietary recall and answered questions about their cardiovascular health.
Results showed that ultra-processed foods made up more than half of the dietary intake among U.S. adults. Further, for every 5 percent increase in calories from ultra-processed foods a person ate, overall heart health saw a corresponding decrease.
People who consumed around 70 percent of their calories from ultra-processed foods were half as likely to have ideal heart health as those who consumed less than 40 percent of ultra-processed calories daily. Ideal cardiovascular health is defined by the AHA Life’s Simple 7, which includes blood pressure measure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and considers a person’s diet and exercise, body weight and fat, and smoking status.
“Healthy diets play an important role in maintaining a healthy heart and blood vessels,” said study author Zefeng Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., an epidemiologist at the CDC, in a statement. “Eating ultra-processed foods often displaces healthier foods that are rich in nutrients, like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein, which are strongly linked to good heart health. In addition, ultra-processed foods are often high in salt, added sugars, saturated fat and other substances associated with increasing the risk of heart disease.”
In order to ensure your diet is heart healthy, even small changes can make a big difference. Making small changes throughout the week, cutting down on sugary drinks and treats, and focusing on choosing cooking at home over the drive-thru can really add up. By making these swaps, you’ll ensure you limit the amount of daily calories that come from processed foods—and help you reduce your daily intake to below 40 percent.
“There are things you can do every day to improve your health just a little bit. For example, instead of grabbing that loaf of white bread, grab a loaf of bread that’s whole grain or wheat. Try replacing a hamburger with fish once or twice a week. Making small changes can add up to better heart health,” said Donna Arnett, Ph.D., past-president of the American Heart Association and dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, in a statement.
Even for runners who often rely on gels, bars, and other grab-and-go snacks to fuel up for runs, keeping your intake of processed foods to below 40 percent is still important.
While you may be thinking about just how many prepackaged foods get you through training (breakfasts that includes yogurt, your afternoon desk snack, and your preworkout bar are contributing to this number), you don’t necessarily need to worry, Matthew Kadey, M.S. R.D. explained to Runner’s World.
The key is to reduce the amount of food you eat that comes in a package. “If you fill your meals and snacks with ‘less processed” types of foods like vegetables, whole fruits, whole grains, and less processed meats (i.e. chicken breast and not chicken nuggets), you should nail this goal,” Kadey said.
During training and marathon season when your intake of processed foods like gels and protein bars is higher to help fuel your efforts, as long as you focus on what you’re eating for the rest of the day, you’re in the clear.
Kadey added that even 40 percent of daily calories from ultra-processed foods is too much, even during training. Instead, he recommends that athletes—even those in the midst of hard training—should try to consume no more than 25 percent of daily calories from ultra-processed foods.
A good choice to ensure you’re not consuming too many processed foods? Look for energy bars that are made with more wholesome ingredients like dried fruit and nuts, Kadey suggested.
“It’s all about striking a better balance between using food to fuel your health and using certain foods to fuel your exercise efforts,” said Kadey.