People who eat a lot of industrially-processed junk food are more likely to exhibit a change in their chromosomes linked to ageing, according to research presented on Sept 2 (2020) at the virtual European and International Conference on Obesity.
People who had three or more servings of so-called “ultra-processed food” per day doubled the odds that their telomeres – strands of DNA and proteins found on the ends of chromosomes – would be shorter, compared to those who rarely consumed such foods, scientists from the University of Navarra in Spain reported.
Each human cell has 23 pairs of chromosomes that contain our genetic code.
Telomeres do not carry genetic information, but are vital for preserving the stability and integrity of chromosomes, and by extension, the DNA that all the cells in our body rely on to function.
As we get older, our telomeres shorten naturally as each time a cell divides, part of the telomere is lost.
That reduction in length has long been recognised as a marker of biological age, and the study suggests that diet is a factor in driving the cells to age faster.
However, while the association is strong, whether eating highly processed foods causes diminished telomeres or not remains a speculation, the research team led by professors Maria Bes-Rastrollo and Amelia Marti cautioned.
Earlier studies had pointed to a possible link with sugar-sweetened drinks, processed meats and other foods loaded with saturated fats and sugar, but the findings were inconclusive.
Ultra-processed foods are industrially-manufactured substances composed of some mix of oils, fats, sugars, starch and proteins that contain little, if any, whole or natural foods.
They often include artificial flavourings, colourings, emulsifiers, preservatives and other additives that increase shelf life and profit margins.
However, these same properties also mean that such foods are nutritionally poor, compared to less processed alternatives, the researchers said.
Earlier studies have shown strong correlations between ultra-processed foods and hypertension, obesity, depression, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer.
These conditions are often age-related, in so far as they are linked to oxidative stress and inflammation that is known to influence telomere length.
Prof Marti and her colleagues looked at health data for nearly 900 people aged 55 or older who provided DNA samples in 2008 and provided detailed data about their eating habits every two years thereafter.
The 645 men and 241 women were equally divided into four groups, depending on their consumption of ultra-processed foods.
Those in the high-intake group were more likely to have a family history of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and abnormal blood fats.
They also consumed less foods associated with the Mediterranean diet – fibre, olive oil, fruits, vegetable and nuts.
Compared to the group who ate the least ultra-processed foods, the other three showed an increased likelihood – 29%, 40% and 82% respectively – of having shortened telomeres.
The findings were published in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. – AFP Relaxnews
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