Indulging in snack cakes and chips may seem worth the risk of diabetes and hypertension, but what about death?

Years after linking junk food and chronic health conditions, a new study found a correlation between processed food and an increased risk of premature, preventable death.

According to the study, the deaths of 57,000 Brazilians between the ages of 30 and 69 in 2019 – more than 10 percent of premature deaths among that age group – were due to the consumption of ultra-processed foods. It was published this month in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Shane Joy, PA, a primary care provider with Hartford HealthCare Medical Group, explains what ultra-processed foods are, why they’re unhealthy and how to integrate them into a balanced diet.

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Processed vs. ultra-processed

Processed food includes any food that has ingredients added before packing, said Joy.

“Whether the ingredients are beneficial or not does not matter. As long as the food is altered before packaging, it’s considered processed,” said Joy.

Ultra-processed foods, however, are foods that have gone through multiple cycles of processing before packaging. Ultimately, he said they end up far from their unprocessed form.

“The more processes a food goes through, the more nutritional value is lost.”

> This Is Your Brain on Junk Food: Ultra-Processed Foods Linked to Cognitive Decline

There are healthy processed foods.

“That doesn’t mean all processed foods are unhealthy. It just means we must be careful when consuming processed foods,” said Joy.

One example of healthy processed food is whole-grain bread, while an unhealthy processed food is cinnamon raisin bread.

Generally, the more ingredients on the list, the unhealthier the food, Joy said. Watching ingredient labels when grocery shopping can help, as can noting such nutritional value percentages as:

  • Carbohydrates
  • Proteins
  • Fats
  • Sodium

> Related: Does a Low Cholesterol Diet Actually Lower Your Cholesterol?

The link between diet and overall health

Diet dictates our health, including energy levels, sleep cycles, cholesterol levels, mental health and blood pressure.

“As I like to tell my patients, our digestive system is our second brain. What we put into our stomachs affects everything we do,” Joy said.

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Balance is key.

A healthy diet should consist of a wide variety of foods, even among the healthy options.

“While it’s great to eat a green salad every day, we are not giving ourselves a wide range of nutrition when doing so,” Joy explained.

Ideal meals should consist of a variety of:

  • Vegetables
  • Whole-grain carbohydrates
  • Low-fat protein (chicken and fish)
  • Fruits
  • Dairy

MyPlate is a great resource for constructing a well-balanced diet. In addition, when shopping, Joy recommended using Shop Simple, a program offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that allows you to find local savings and view budget-friendly foods for your next healthy meal.