Study Results Link Higher Mortality to High Consumption of Processed Food, Red Meat

Investigators at Loma Linda University Health saw these common denominators among both vegetarians and non-vegetarians.

High consumption of red meat and ultra-processed foods may be important mortality indicators, according to investigators at Loma Linda University Health.

Their study looked at more than 77,000 participants and considered a diverse array of diets, including vegetarian and non-vegetarian.

The outcomes provided new insights about ultra-processed foods as a common denominator of mortality among vegetarians and non-vegetarians, study author Gary Fraser, MBChB, PhD, a professor at Loma Linda University Health, said in a statement.

“Our study addresses the question of what can make a vegetarian diet healthy or unhealthy,” he said. “It seems that the proportion of ultra-processed foods in someone’s diet is actually more important with respect to mortality than the proportion of animal-derived foods they eat, the exception being red meat.”

Vegetarians who ate a lot of processed foods faced similar proportionate increases in mortality outcomes as non-vegetarians who ate a lot of processed foods, Fraser said.

The mortality risks of 2 dietary factors independent of each other were assessed: the proportion of the diet composed of ultra-processed foods compared with less processed foods and the proportion of diet from animal-based foods compared with plant-based foods.

The research team gathered data from a cohort study in North America comprising 77,437 female and male participants. The participants completed a frequency food questionnaire including more than 200 food items to describe their diets. Other demographic and health-related information was gathered, including education level, exercise frequency, marital status, race, and sex.

The investigators then analyzed participants’ demographic and health information in conjunction with their mortality data for a mean timeframe of about 7 ½ years. Following this, they implemented a statistical model to help produce a cause-specific mortality analysis and focused on ultra-processed food intake regardless of other factors, such as age or animal-food consumption.

The results showed that individuals who obtained half their total calories from ultra-processed foods faced a 14% increase in mortality compared with those who received just 12.5% of their total calories from ultra-processed foods.

Additionally, the study authors reported that high consumption levels of ultra-processed foods were associated with mortality in relation to neurological, renal, and respiratory conditions, specifically Alzheimer disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and Parkinson disease. However, high ultra-processed food consumption was not associated with mortality from cancer, cardiovascular disease, or endocrine conditions.

The study results showed that greater consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with higher all-cause mortality, even in a health-conscious Adventist population that has many vegetarians, Fraser said.

Further research is needed for specific health effects of ultra-processed food consumption in humans.

“If you’re interested in living longer or to your maximal potential, you’d be wise to avoid a diet filled with ultra-processed foods and replace them with less processed or unprocessed foods," Fraser said.

“At the same time, avoid eating a lot of red meat,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”


LLU study associates higher mortality with eating lots of ultra-processed foods, red meat. EurekAlert! News release. May 18, 2022. Accessed May 23, 2022.