Published: 08/15/2014 02:00 PM EDT on LiveScience
It's convenient, cheap and best served hot, but how healthy is it? The instant noodles commonly known as ramen — a staple food for college kids and other young adults, as well as people in certain cultures — may increase people's risk of metabolic changes linked to heart disease and stroke, new research finds.
In the study, women in South Korea who consumed more of the precooked blocks of dried noodles were more likely to have "metabolic syndrome" regardless of what else they ate, or how much they exercised, the researchers found. People with metabolic syndrome may have high blood pressure or high blood sugar levels, and face an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
"Although instant noodle is a convenient and delicious food, there could be an increased risk for metabolic syndrome given [the food's] high sodium, unhealthy saturated fat and glycemic loads," said study co-author Hyun Shin, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. [7 Foods Your Heart Will Hate]
Shin and his colleagues at Baylor University and Harvard analyzed the health and diet of nearly 11,000 adults in South Korea between ages 19 to 64. The participants reported what they ate, and the researchers categorized each participant's diet as centered on either traditional healthy food or fast food, as well as how many times weekly they ate instant noodles.
Women who ate instant noodles twice a week or more had a higher risk of metabolic syndrome than those who ate ramen less, or not at all, regardless of whether their diet style fell into the traditional or fast-food category. The researchers found the association even among young women who were leaner and reported doing more physical activity.
As for men, Shin and his colleagues guessed that biological differences between the genders, like the effect of sex hormones and metabolism, might account for the lack of an apparent association among males between eating instant noodles and developing metabolic syndrome.
The study was conducted in South Korea, an area known to have the largest ramen consumption group in the world, where people consumed 3.4 billion packages of instant noodles in 2010.
But the findings could apply to people in North American too, said Lisa Young, a nutritionist and professor at New York University who was not involved in the study. "We [in the States] don't eat it as much, but the ramen noodles are being sold, so this could apply to anywhere they're sold, and they're sold almost everywhere."
So what's so bad about instant noodles?
"Instant noodles are high in fat, high in salt, high in calories and they're processed — all those factors could contribute to some of the health problems [the researchers] addressed," Young said. "That doesn't mean that every single person is going to respond the same way, but the piece to keep in mind is that it's not a healthy product, and it is a processed food."
Processed foods generally contain high amounts of sugar and salt, primarily because they are designed to have long shelf lives.
But Young said there might be ways to dampen the dangers of eating instant noodles without swearing off of them altogether. "Number one, don't eat it every day," Young told Live Science. "Number two, portion control," she said, and recommended that people eat a small amount of instant noodles and mix them with vegetables and other healthier, nonprocessed foods.
Above all, however, Young said a little bit of preparation could help people avoid processed instant noodles altogether. "You can easily make noodles, homemade pasta, ground-rice pasta and veggies" at home, with a little bit of planning, she said.
The study was published Aug. 1 in the Journal of Nutrition.