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Experts say that three or more servings per day of “ultra-processed food” – mass-manufactured foods containing oils, sugars, fats, starch, and little nutrients – may double the odds of changes in chromosomes linked to aging. Scientists at the European and International Conference on Obesity reported their findings at an online medical conference at the beginning of September.

Research published earlier this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that having multiple daily servings of junk food, like cookies, chips, fast-food burgers, or other processed meals, doubles the chance that certain DNA strands, called telomeres, of being shorter than those who ate healthier diets.

Telomeres help stabilize our chromosomes and DNA. As we age, cells divide and telomeres get shorter. Stress, inflammation, and poor diet can speed up this aging process. Shorter telomeres are linked to a greater risk of age-related illnesses such as cancer and type 2 diabetes.

Scientists Maria Best-Rastrollo and Amelia Marti of the University of Navarra, Spain, analyzed the health data of around 900 people aged 55 and older who gave DNA samples in 2008 and checked back on them every two years afterward.

The participants, a group of 645 men and 241 women, were divided into four groups, based on how much processed food they ate. Findings indicated that participants who consumed more junk food were more likely to have a history of diabetes, abnormal blood fats, or cardiovascular disease in their family history. They also presented up to an 82% chance of having shortened telomeres, compared to the group who ate healthier.

Previous research has established a potential correlation between processed meats, sodas, and other high-sugar foods, but it’s been unclear what age-related conditions may occur.

So if a diet high in ultra-processed food can age us faster, it’s safe to assume that the converse is true. In fact, it IS true. A diet of mostly whole plant foods, high in fiber, unsaturated fat, and micronutrients, much of which is found within the Mediterranean diet, can lead to healthier aging, not to mention the lower risk of disease, sustainable improvements to blood pressure and blood sugar.

How much research do we need to see before we change our self-destructive habits?

If you want to stay younger longer, make sure you’re fueling your body with the best nutrition, keep active, and enjoy life!