The high consumption of ultra-processed foods, increases the risk of developing high blood pressure and high blood lipids among the entire population and the risk of inflammation among those suffering from non-alcoholic fatty liver. These findings emerged from a new study led by researchers from the University of Haifa. “High consumption of processed food among those suffering from fatty liver is associated with the exacerbation of the disease, particularly among smokers,” explained Ph.D. student Dana Ivancovsky-Wajcman from the School of Public Health at the University of Haifa, one of the authors of the study.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver is particularly prevalent among people suffering from excessive weight, diabetes, and/or unhealthy nutrition; it is the commonest liver disease in the world, found among some 30% of the general adult population in Israel. This liver disease is caused mainly by unhealthy nutrition, a lack of physical activity, and obesity, and can be treated through lifestyle changes.
Ultra-processed food is often characterized by low nutritional quality, on the one hand, and high energy density, on the other. Such foods are marketed in closed packaging and contain various additives intended to improve the flavor or shelf life of the product. These substances include sugars, oils, and various fats, such as palm oil (a saturated fat), salt, antioxidants, stabilizers, and preservatives. Processed food, by contrast, refers to food that has undergone processing such as heating or cooking, but without the addition of industrial substances. “Previous studies have shown that elevated consumption of ultra-processed food is associated with mortality and chronic morbidity. However, the connection to fatty liver disease has not been examined,” the researchers explained. In the current study, Prof. Shira Zelber-Sagi, the head of the School of Public Health at the University of Haifa and doctoral student Dana Ivancovsky-Wajcman from the School; Prof. Revital Kariv, Oren Shibolet, Naomi Fliss-Isakov, and Muriel Webb from Tel Aviv Medical Center; and Prof. Itay Bentov from the University of Washington sought to examine the connection between the consumption of ultra-processed food and metabolic syndrome, fatty liver disease, and liver damage. A total of 789 men and women participated in their study, which was published in the journal Liver International, 39 percent of whom were diagnosed with fatty liver.
The results of the study show that people who consume a large quantity of ultra-processed food face a 1.5-times higher risk of suffering from high blood pressure, hyper-hypertriglyceridemia (excess fat in the blood), and low levels of “good cholesterol” (HDL). In addition, high consumption of ultra-processed food almost doubles the risk of metabolic syndrome and its systems (at least three of the following symptoms: high sugar, abdominal obesity, high blood lipid levels, high blood pressure, and low HDL). “The study results complement earlier studies showing a correlation between ultra-processed food and obesity and the development of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. The results highlight the importance of eating homemade food and non-processed or minimally-processed food, such as: vegetables, fruit, seeds, nuts, pulses, unsweetened milk products, fish, chicken, and non-processed beef,” Prof. Zelber-Sagi emphasized.
Among people with fatty liver, it was found that the consumption of ultra-processed food is associated with a 1.89-times higher risk of blood signs suggesting inflammatory fatty liver (a more severe condition than fatty liver), and a 2.26-times higher risk of high blood pressure. Moreover, among fatty liver patients who smoke, high consumption of ultra-processed food is associated with a 3.5-times higher risk of signs suggesting the presence of fibrosis.
“It is a good idea to reduce the consumption of foods and drinks that come ready for consumption in packages, including packed baked goods, snacks of various kinds, sweetened dairy desserts, and of course processed meat and sweetened beverages. Conversely, it is important and beneficial to eat fresh food, to cook at home, and, of course, to eat plenty of vegetables, fruit, pulses, and whole grains. This lifestyle is good for liver health and our health in general,” Prof. Zelber-Sagi concluded.