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We explain which dishes are dangerous — and why.

Most of us enjoy a frozen meal or soda from time to time, but if you make a habit of eating ultra-processed foods, they can potentially be deadly. That’s according to two major studies that show these kinds of meals can lead to an increased risk of colorectal cancer and even early death.

What’s worse is Americans are especially at risk. According to separate findings published in British medical journal The BMJ, ultra-processed foods account for nearly 58 percent of daily calories eaten in the U.S., despite long-standing research showing its dangers.

“Literally hundreds of studies link ultra-processed foods to obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and overall mortality,” nutritional sciences professor Marion Nestle, who wasn’t part of either study, told CNN. “These two studies continue the consistency: Ultra-processed foods are unambiguously associated with an increased risk for chronic disease.”

For a better understanding of how to protect yourself, here’s a breakdown of what the studies mean for your health and why this food group can be so detrimental.

What are ultra–processed foods?

While the term “ultra-processed” might not sound familiar, chances are you’ve strolled past them in the grocery store (and maybe even put a few in your cart). They include everything from pre-packaged soups and ready-to-eat meals to chips and various types of meat, like chicken nuggets. And if you have a sweet tooth, you might want to listen up — ice cream, chocolate, and donuts all fall under this risky category as well.

What did the studies reveal?

The first study examined the diets of more than 200,000 men and women across the U.S. for up to 28 years, and it found that men who tended to eat a lot more ultra-processed foods had a 29 percent higher risk of developing colorectal cancer. Interestingly enough, researchers didn’t find the same risk for colorectal cancer in women, and they said more research is necessary to figure out why that’s the case, though some suspect it could have to do with biological differences between the sexes, or perhaps even slightly healthier choices from women when it comes to ultra-processed foods.

The second study followed more than 22,000 people in the Molise region of Italy over 14 years. That research found that those who ate nutrient-poor and ultra-processed foods were more likely to develop a chronic disease or die prematurely from cardiovascular disease. While both types of foods contributed to these risks, researchers discovered that ultra-processed foods were “paramount to define the risk of mortality.”

Why are these meals so bad for us?

Generally speaking, ultra-processed foods are mostly made from manufactured ingredients that are extracted from foods like fats, sugars, and starches. That means they’re generally higher in calories and also lower in key nutrients like protein and fiber. But there are some exceptions: For instance, ultra-processed dairy foods like soy milk and yogurt can be healthy additions to your diet, and researchers in one of the studies found that those were was associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer in women.

The bottom line

Ultra-processed foods should be eaten sparingly, and it’s important choose fresh fruits and vegetables whenever possible.

“We should consider substituting the ultra-processed foods with unprocessed or minimally processed foods in our diet for cancer prevention and prevention of obesity and cardiovascular diseases,” says cancer epidemiologist Fang Fang Zhang, one of the authors of the studies.

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