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The #1 Worst Eating Habit That Increases Your Risk of Dying from Heart Disease, Says Study

You might want to consider skipping that glass of soda.
FACT CHECKED BY Joseph Neese

It's no secret that if you're at risk of suffering from a repeat heart attack or stroke, it's important to be thoughtful about the food choices you make. You may already know that eating certain foods, such as fatty fish and nuts, can help keep your heart healthy, while others, such as meat-topped pizzas, could be putting your ticker in danger.

Now, new research finds that, for people with a history of cardiac events, eating a diet full of ultra-processed foods can spike the risk of dying both from heart disease and all other causes. (RELATED: The 100 Unhealthiest Foods On the Planet)

The study, which was published in the European Heart Journal, looked at 1,171 adults with a history of heart disease over an average period of a little more than a decade. Using food frequency questionnaires, researchers compared the amount of ultra-processed food eaten each day by the participants with the total amount of food they consumed.

They found that among participants who ate the highest percentage of ultra-processed foods, the chance of dying from cardiovascular disease (CVD) was about two-thirds higher than it was for the control group. Additionally, the ultra-processed diet increased all-cause mortality (i.e. death for any reason) by around 40%.

RELATED: One Major Side Effect of Eating Ultra-Processed Foods, Says New Study

"It is really hard to think that you can completely get rid of these [ultra-processed] foods nowadays, since almost half of our daily calories come from them," the study's first author Marialaura Bonaccio, PhD, told Eat This, Not That! in an interview. "However, people should start thinking about getting back to a traditional diet, which strongly limits foods that are ultra-processed, instead favoring home preparation and consumption of unprocessed food."

To calculate the total amount of ultra-processed foods consumed by participants, researchers used the NOVA classification system, which classifies all foods into four groups, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. They are unprocessed or minimally processed foods, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, and "ultra-processed" foods.

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"It's perhaps unsurprising that in an observational study a trend would exist indicating that those who consumed the largest amounts of 'ultra processed foods' were at greater risk of heart disease than those who consumed the least amount," Andy De Santis, RD, MPH, author of The 5-Ingredient Heart Healthy Cookbook, told Eat This, Not That!.

"The term ultra-processed foods encompasses a broad array of foods," he added, "many of which are tied together by the presence of high glycemic carbohydrates (i.e. white flour), processed and red meat (hot dogs, sausages, hamburgers) and other dietary components (butter, cream, high fat diary, added sugar, etc.) that could be problematic when consumed in large amounts and could help to explain these findings."

While everyone could benefit from shifting their diet from one that features ultra-processed foods to one that includes more nutrient-dense whole foods, those with a history of cardiovascular events should be especially mindful of what they eat. If you're on the hunt for smarter food choices, be sure to check out these 15 Homemade Swaps for Ultra-Processed Foods.

Clara Olshansky
Clara Olshansky (they/she) is a Brooklyn-based writer and comic whose web content has appeared in Food & Wine, Harper’s Magazine, Men's Health, and Reductress. Read more