People whose diets are made up mainly of processed foods—such as white bread, cake, chicken nuggets, soft drinks and instant soups—are 50 percent more likely to have heart problems.
The risk is greatest in those whose diet is 70 percent processed food, and it falls dramatically once the amount falls to 40 percent or less of total calorie intake.
As a simple measure, every additional 5 percent of processed food consumed had a corresponding damaging effect on the health of the heart and arteries, say researchers at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They reviewed the diets of 13,466 adults that had been tracked between 2011 and 2016.
It's one of the key factors in maintaining a healthy heart, the researchers say. According to the American Heart Association, the other six are healthy blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels, avoidance of tobacco products, healthy body weight and adequate physical activity.
Eating too much processed food has an impact on three of the factors—blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels, and body weight.
"There are things you can do every day to improve your health just a little bit. Try replacing a hamburger with fish once or twice a week, for instance. Making small changes can add up to better heart health," said researcher Donna Arnett.