New studies reveal that ultra-processed foods such as cereal and protein bars increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. What does this mean for the UK and how can we make changes to our diet?

According to two new groundbreaking studies, ultra-processed food substantially increases the risk of heart-related problems, such as heart disease and heart attacks. In the UK, over 50% of the average diet now consists of processed food, including sliced bread, frozen pizzas, and low-fat yoghurts.

Including 10,000 women over 15 years, one of the studies concluded that those with the highest percentage of ultra-processed food in their diet were 39% more prone to developing high blood pressure than those with the lowest. The other study revealed that those who consumed the highest percentage of ultra-processed foods were 24% more likely to suffer from cardiovascular issues, such as strokes, angina, and heart attacks.

Lead study author Anushriya Pant of the University of Sydney, spoke to reporters at the European Society of Cardiology Congress in Amsterdam about the lack of education when it comes to what constitutes ultra-processed food, and that food labelled as ‘healthy’, such as shop-bought sandwiches and soups, actually contain high levels of salt, sugar, artificial additives, and fat. He also talked about the effects of a diet too high in sodium, such as hypertension and high blood pressure.

Dr Chris van Tulleken, author of the bestselling book Ultra Processed People, says that some processed foods will be familiar, such as junk food, but there will be plenty of ‘ethical’ ultra-processed foods that will be mis-sold as healthy or nutritious. He goes on to talk about the devastating consequences of eating too many processed foods.

There is now significant evidence that these products inflame the gut, disrupt appetite regulation, alter hormone levels and cause myriad other effects which likely increase the risk of cardiovascular and other disease much in the same way that smoking does.

If you would like to know more about the gut-brain connection, nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert explores the food and mood connection on the Happiful podcast.

Former government food advisor, Henry Dimbleby forewarns that “a tidal wave of harm” will strike the NHS if nothing is done to combat this problem, predicting “a sick and impoverished country”. Professionals urge for healthy foods to take centre stage.

Is it any wonder that the consumption of processed foods is on the rise when we feel so time-poor as a nation? So, what small changes can we make to reduce the number of processed foods in our diet?

What is clean eating?

In her article, Why clean eating is the only diet you need, nutrition and lifestyle coach Emily Collins talks about the value of decreasing processed food, such as pre-made sauces, crisps, and ready meals whilst introducing foods closest to their 'natural state'. She sums up clean eating as, “consuming meals you have cooked from fresh ingredients and avoiding foods which have been through numerous processes before they reach your plate.”

Emily gives an example of the differences between white and brown rice. White rice has been through the ‘process’ of having the husk removed, whereas brown rice is in its natural state. She also advised on really checking the list of ingredients before making a supermarket purchase.

If you do need to purchase a processed food then look at its ingredient list and try to avoid purchasing items which use ingredients you wouldn’t add yourself (i.e. colourings, stabilisers etc.) – the longer the list of ingredients on a product the more reason to avoid it.

Emily’s top 5 tips for clean eating include:

1. increasing your fruit and vegetable intake

2. cooking from scratch

3. eating whole grains

4. reading labels

5. avoiding packaged snacks

If you would like to know more about how to eat healthily, you may want to connect with a nutrition professional on Happiful.