A healthy, well-rounded diet is like a delicious recipe. Just like one wrong ingredient can turn a Michelin-star meal into a culinary mess, a single dietary oversight can sabotage an otherwise healthy meal plan.
What makes up a healthy diet in the first place? Generally speaking, adopting a Mediterranean approach to eating that emphasizes lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as minimal meats and processed foods, seems to be the way to go.
Ranked as the #1 overall diet for 2022 by U.S. Health News, following the general pillars of a Mediterranean diet will benefit your heart, waistline, and mind. Moreover, recent research showed that eating less meat and more nuts, veggies, legumes, etc. (basically a Mediterranean diet) can add up to 13 years to one’s lifespan!
Ultra-processed is ultra-deadly
Unfortunately, even a vegetarian diet isn’t foolproof. Eye-opening new research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has uncovered one particular type of food shown to increase mortality risk even among vegetarians following an otherwise healthy diet.
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Conducted at Loma Linda University, this massive research project (including over 75,000 participants) demonstrated that eating a lot of ultra-processed foods is associated with increased mortality risk.
Bad vegetarians & good non-vegetarians
Importantly, the research also notes that both vegetarians and non-vegetarians eating high amounts of ultra-processed foods “faced a similar proportionate increase in mortality outcomes.” In other words, eating ultra-processed foods consistently may lower your lifespan—even if you’re avoiding meat.
Study authors say greater consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with higher all-cause mortality, as well as mortality related to respiratory (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), neurological (dementia, Parkinson’s), and renal conditions.
Examples of ultra-processed foods include corn chips, apple pie, pretty much anything in the candy aisle, and packaged breads and buns.
Put another way, ultra-processed foods are the common mortality denominator among both vegetarians and non-vegetarians. With this in mind, researchers posit that their work illustrates it is quite possible to be a “bad vegetarian or a good non-vegetarian.”
Societally, we tend to see all vegetarians as healthy eaters, but these findings indicate nutrition just isn’t that simple.
“Our study addresses the question of what can make a vegetarian diet healthy or unhealthy,” says study author Gary Fraser, MBChB, PhD, a professor at the Loma Linda University School of Medicine and School of Public Health, in a university release. “It seems that the proportion of ultra-processed foods in someone’s diet is actually more important with respect to mortality than the proportion of animal-derived foods they eat, the exception being red meat.”
Right from the start, researchers set out to examine the independent mortality impact of two dietary factors: The proportion of one’s diet made up of ultra-processed foods in comparison to less processed foods AND the proportion of one’s diet made up of animal-based foods (meats, eggs, dairy) in comparison to plant-based foods.
This unique approach allowed the research team to examine the mortality implications of each dietary component (ultra-processed foods, meat) in a vacuum.