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- Scientists who study large numbers of people around the world have found that certain foods are linked with death, cancer, and diabetes.
- Of course, eating a little bit of these "bad" foods won’t kill you, but they can have a detrimental effect on your health over time.
- In general, nutritionists recommend eating fresh vegetables and whole grains, and cooking at home when you can.
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The truth is more complicated, though, and nutrition experts are starting to insist that there’s just no eating plan that’s right for every body.
Still, there are some foods that scientists have found — after years of studying people who eat them around the world — to be associated with negative health outcomes.
Here are eight of the worst offenders, which science has suggested up our odds of developing cancer, gaining weight, contracting diabetes, and ultimately perishing earlier than we should.
Meats from the grill and other burnt foods.
The risk: Cancer.
Burnt items — whether that be something charred over coals, browned in a toaster, or even a lit cigarette — aren’t great for human health in big doses.
When meats like chicken, pork, beef, or fish are cooked or fried at high temperatures, they form compounds called heterocyclic amines, (HCAs), as well as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These compounds can prompt DNA changes that may increase a person’s cancer risk.
But the way that these compounds work in tandem with others inside our bodies is complex and still not fully understood. (One study from Kansas State University found that marinating meats in spices like rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sage may cut down the HCAs in a piece of meat by 87%.)
Another potentially risky compound that forms when food gets browned is acrylamide — it’s one of the toxic chemicals smokers inhale. When foods like bread, coffee, or french fries are roasted, fried, or baked at high temperatures, they produce acrylamide. But there’s no good evidence that a little browning is harmful. In fact, California recently reversed its cancer warning for coffee, saying that "after reviewing more than a thousand studies, we concluded that coffee consumption does not pose a significant cancer risk."
Red meat (even when it’s not grilled).
The risks: Cancer and heart disease.
Tucking into a juicy steak or burger can be a treat, but you can have too much of a good thing.
Beef, ham, lamb and other red meat contain a protein called haem that can damage the intestinal lining, increasing the risk of colon cancer.
There’s also no fiber in meat, so it’s important to supplement any meaty meals with fresh, nutrient-rich veggies. One recent study found that people who consumed more red meat had an increased risk of death over time, though that could simply be because people who eat a lot of meat generally eat less fresh produce, and therefore miss out on the health-boosting benefits of vegetables.
In addition, many red meats are high in saturated fat and cholesterol, too much of which can clog the arteries and increase the risk of a heart attack or a stroke. But lean, unprocessed meat can contain nutrients like iron, zinc, vitamin D, potassium, and B-vitamins, as well as protein. The American Heart Association recommends choosing high-quality red meats and sticking to reasonable portion sizes.
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The risks: Diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
Many foods naturally contain sugar, including fruit, grains, and dairy. Refined sugar is sometimes added to food often to improve its taste and lengthen shelf life.
Sugar can harm your health in several ways, in addition to simply causing you to consume more calories than you otherwise might. Too much of it increases triglycerides, a type of fat produced by the liver when it breaks down fructose. Triglycerides in the bloodstream can build up inside the walls of your arteries, contributing to heart disease.
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