Processed food ages the body as well as increasing the risk of a host of diseases, Spanish research suggests.
The study of 900 men and women, with an average age of 68, examined their diets, and the sections of DNA which are a marker of biological age.
Short telomeres indicate biological changes at a cellular level, and are associated with ageing.
Those who ate more convenience foods, and less fresh fare, were twice as likely to have short telomeres, the study found.
The research by the University of Navarra, presented at the International Conference on Obesity (ECOICO 2020) online, found that as consumption of “ultra processed” foods increased, the likelihood of having shortened telomeres rose dramatically.
Such foods include ready meals, processed meats and other convenience snacks and meals.
Overall, telomeres were twice as likely to be short who had at least three portions a day of foods which were classed as ultra-processed.
Researchers said the findings suggested that the modern diet was likely to be causing the cells to age faster.
Telomeres are structures formed from a strand of DNA together with specialised proteins, and which are located at the ends of the chromosomes. While they do not contain genetic information themselves, they are vital for preserving the stability and integrity of chromosomes and the DNA that cells rely on to function.
As we get older, our telomeres get shorter since each time a cell divides, part of the telomere is lost, so telomere length is seen as a marker of biological age.
In total 645 men and 241 women with an average age of 68 years were included in the analysis.
Those eating the most processed foods were also found to be more likely to have a family history of heart disease and diabetes.
The research found that as consumption of ultra-processed foods increased the likelihood of having shortened telomeres rose dramatically with each quartile above the lowest group having a risk increase of 29 per cent, 40 per cent, and 82 per cent respectively.
High intake of such foods was also associated with a greater risk of depression, high blood pressure, and all cause mortality.
The authors conclude: “In this cross-sectional study of elderly Spanish subjects we showed a robust strong association between ultra-processed food consumption and telomere length.”
Separate research presented at the same conference found that those who eat late tend to eat more overall, and have a worse diet, than those who have most of their calories earlier in the day.
The study of 1200 adults by Ulster University grouped adults into quartiles based on the proportion of their daily energy intake consumed after 6pm. Those who ate less than a third of their calories after 6pm were most likely to be slim, and to have the healthiest diets. Those who consumed more than 48 percent of their daily calories after 6pm were likely to be fattest, and were more likely to consume more fatty foods and alcohol.