Telomeres are structures formed from a strand of DNA together with specialized proteins, and which are located at the ends of the chromosomes.
As we get older, our telomeres get shorter since each time a cell divides, part of the telomere is lost, thus telomere length is considered to be a marker of biological age.
In a recent study at the University of Navarra, researchers found the consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to the shortening of telomeres; sections of chromosomes that can be used as a marker of biological age.
They showed that telomeres were twice as likely to be short in people who had a high consumption (more than 3 servings per day) of ultra-processed foods.
Short telomeres are a marker of biological aging at the cellular level, and the study suggests that diet may be causing the cells to age faster.
The study was presented at the European and International Conference on Obesity (ECOICO 2020). One author is Lucia Alonso-Pedrero.
Worldwide, fresh food consumption is decreasing while ultra-processed food intake is rising.
Ultra-processed foods are industrial formulations of food-derived substances (oils, fats, sugars, starch, protein isolates) that contain little or no whole food and often include flavorings, colorings, emulsifiers, and other cosmetic additives.
The processes and ingredients used in the manufacturing of ultra-processed foods make them highly convenient, highly attractive for consumers, and highly profitable for their manufacturers.
Ultra-processed foods can be nutritionally poor or unbalanced, and liable to be over-consumed, often at the expense of less processed and more nutritious alternatives.
Previous research had linked ultra-processed foods with high blood pressure, obesity, metabolic syndrome, depression, type 2 diabetes, and various cancers.
These health conditions are often age-related and are linked to oxidative stress, inflammation, and cellular aging which can also influence telomere length.
In the study, the team examined the link between ultra-processed food consumption and the risk of telomere length in older people.
In total, 886 people provided saliva samples for DNA analysis as well as accurate records of their daily food intake.
The team found people who ate lots of ultra-processed foods were more likely to have a family history of heart disease, diabetes, and abnormal blood fats, and to snack more in between meals.
These people also consumed more fats, saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, sodium, cholesterol, fast food, and processed meats while consuming fewer carbohydrates, protein, fiber, olive oil, fruits, vegetables, and other micronutrients.
People who ate more ultra-processed foods were found to be less likely to adhere to the ‘Mediterranean diet’ which has been linked to improved general health and in particular a reduced risk of CVD.
The team showed that as ultra-processed food consumption increased, the likelihood of having shortened telomeres rose dramatically with each quartile above the lowest having a risk increase of 29%, 40%, and 82% for the ‘medium-low’, ‘medium-high’, and ‘high’ ultra-processed foods consumption groups respectively.
They also found that ultra-processed food intake was linked to the risk of depression, high blood pressure, overweight/obesity, and all-cause mortality.
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