It's the latest reason to avoid processed foods.

By Zee Krstic
Getty: Jeff Thatcher / EyeEm

Researchers have discovered a link between high levels of inorganic phosphate, a food preservative commonly used in processed foods like soda and processed meat, and a lack of physical activity. The research, conducted by a team at the University of Texas' Southwestern Medical Center, was published in the American Heart Association's journal Circulation this month, and could help explain why less than 5 percent of the United States' adult population exercises for 30 minutes each day.

Researchers conducted animal and human studies to better understand the effect of phosphate on overall activity levels—especially on how much time is spent being sedentary.

In the first set of studies, two groups of mice were fed similar diets, with one group being exposed to more than three times the amount of phosphate as the other. After 12 weeks, the mice exposed to higher levels of phosphate spent less time on the treadmill as opposed to those who enjoyed a "cleaner" diet. They also consumed less oxygen overall, a signal that fitness levels weren't as intense as mice who weren't exposed to high amounts of phosphate.

The human trials involved 1,603 healthy participants who wore a fitness tracker over the span of seven days. Similarly, they found that those consuming higher amounts of phosphate had reduced physical activity levels, with this group also spending less time vigorously exercising and being more sedentary overall.

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Could focusing on reducing your phosphate intake actually help you become more active?

Brierley Horton, Cooking Light's nutrition director, says this research could finally push people to eat as "clean" as possible, especially since phosphates affect more than just your weight.

"We often recommend eliminating packaged foods, as it could help you eat leaner. But it seems that packaged, processed products and junk foods could be doing more than just sabotaging your diet," she said. "It could be also impacting your fitness drive."

Researchers encouraged federal agencies to require phosphate counts on the upcoming revamped nutritional facts label, which could help consumers monitor their intake. Phosphate can be found in food groups like nuts, eggs, and dairy naturally, which is used by the body to build healthy teeth and bones. But overly processed foods contain high amounts of the nutrient in order to enhance appearance or lengthen its shelf life.

According to the research, 40 to 70 percent of popular items—including cola drinks, frozen meals, dry food mixes, processed meat, and bakery products—contain added phosphate. And 25 percent of Americans consumer three to four times the recommended amount of phosphate on a regular basis.

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