These common pantry staples skyrocket heart attack and stroke risk

I’ve been writing a lot recently about the dangers of diets high in ultra-processed, “convenience foods. For one, research shows they increase your risk of dying from any cause. And now, there’s a new study out of Italy showing that a diet full of junk food increases your risk of dying, specifically, from heart attack or stroke.  

Before I tell you about that eye-opening study, let’s back up for a moment to talk more about why ultra-processed foods (UPFs) pose such a problem to your health 

Ultra-processed foods are everywhere 

When I talk about UPFs, I’m referring to mass-produced, packaged foods high in sugars and processed carbs—such as candies, breakfast cereals, chips, cookies, crackers, flavored yogurts, frozen meals, granola bars, most sliced breads, packaged lunch meats, pre-made waffles, and tarts.  

Processed, plant-based, fake foods—such as “vegan” cheeses and meats made with processed pea and soy protein—also fall into this category. (Don’t think for a second that these ultra-processed, plant-based foods are better for you than eating whole, organic meats and cheeses. They’re just as processed and bad for you as everything else on the UPF list!) 

All in all, UPFs usually contain “empty calories” with little-to-no nutritional content. They’re typically low in fiber and high in processed carbohydrates. And they usually contain artificial, even carcinogenic, food additives.  

Thirty-five years ago, I urged my bosses at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to look at a diet low in whole foods and high in UPFs as a cause of cancer, heart disease, and other chronic diseases. But they didn’t. Instead, they tried to blame cholesterol, fat, and even protein in the diet for all of our health problems. (We now know that misguided, politically driven “fishing expedition never panned out.) 

Finally, more than three decades later, researchers have picked up our research thread and started to delve deeper into the connection between UPFs and disease risk… 

Study looks at effect of ultra-processed foods on heart disease death 

For the new study, researchers followed more than 20,000 middle-aged men and women living in southern Italy. First, they asked the participants about their daily diets and categorized specific foods consumed using the NOVA food classification system. (The higher the NOVA score, the more highly processed the food.)  

Then, they sorted the participants according to the amount of UPFs in their diets. 

On averageUPFs made up about 10 percent of the participants’ diets. For the high consumers, UPFs made up about 15 percent or more of their total diets. (More specifically, these participants ate more ice cream, soft drinks, and fast food hamburgers than their peers. They were also more likely to be youngerfemale, and [interestingly] to have higher educational status.) 

After assessing the participants’ diets, the researchers followed them for about eight years. And it turns out, compared to those who ate the least amount of UPFs, the high consumers had a: 

  • 58 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. 
  • 52 percent higher risk of dying from stroke or another cerebrovascular event.   
  • 26 percent higher risk of dying from any cause. 

Plus, there was a clear “dose-response” effect. So, the more UPFs consumed, the higher the risks.  

The study also found that high sugar intake was major, related problem. In fact, high sugar intake accounted for 36 percent of the relationship between UPFs and heart attack/stroke deaths. (By comparison, other nutritional factors, such as saturated fats, were unlikely to play a role.)  

I also found it disturbing that participants in this study lived in Italy—a country with a long and proud history of following the healthy, Mediterranean-type diet. There were enough people today who followed different dietary patterns to be able to detect differences. And clearly, not every Italian today still has the good sense to follow the traditional, wholesome dietwhich includes: 

  • Full-fat, whole-milk dairy, including butter, eggs, cheeses, and yogurt. (Remember, in the Mediterranean, they eat cheese at each and every meal. But health experts typically overlook that point because it doesn’t fit their “antifat” narrative.) 
  • Wild-caught fish and grass-fed and -finished, free-range meat, especially lamb, which has the best nutritional profile of all meats. 
  • Nuts and seeds. 
  • Five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. 
  • Alcohol in moderation. 

As I’ve reported before, you’ll find most of these healthy foods located at the perimeter of the grocery store, as they typically require refrigeration. Meanwhile, all of the processed, packaged foods will be stocked in the center aisles 

In the end, this study confirms that eating a nutritious, balanced, healthy, Mediterranean-style diet will keep you free from disease for years to come. It can even counter the ill effects of excess weight on your lifespan, as I explained in the December 2020 ofInsiders’ Cures(“The one diet that provides health benefits all around the world”). Not yet a subscriber? Click here to become one today!  


“Ultra-processed food consumption is associated with increased risk of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality in the Moli-sani Study.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, December 2020; 113(2).