Ultra-processed Foods May Increase Dementia Risk

We know that our customers aim to take control of their health through their lifestyle choices. Taking care of yourself with diet, exercise and healthy habits is essential. Regular trips to your doctor and adherence to medication routines are necessary. Still, your daily behavior can be just as impactful.

A new study found that ultra-processed foods may be linked to an increased risk of dementia. A diet comprised of more than 20 percent ultra-processed food can raise your risk. And the brain regions connected to executive function are impacted the most. People in the study who ate the most of these foods had a 28 percent faster rate of overall cognitive decline and a 25 percent fast rate of executive function decline.

Ultra-processed food was defined by the researchers as “industrial formulations of food substances (oils, fats, sugars, starch, and protein isolates) that contain little or no whole foods and typically include flavorings, colorings, emulsifiers, and other cosmetic additives.” Processed meat, cookies, soda, ice cream and other “junk food” all fall into this category.

Tests in the study included word recall, word recognition and verbal fluency. People in the study who ate the most of these foods had a 28 percent faster rate of overall cognitive decline and a 25 percent fast rate of executive function decline. The researchers followed more than 10,000 people in Brazil for about 10 years. Their average age was 51.

It’s unsettling to know that the change in cognition is seen when 20 percent of a person’s calories come from ultra-processed foods. Because the average American eats far more than that.

In Brazil, ultra-processed foods make up 25 percent to 30 percent of total calorie intake. We have McDonald’s, Burger King, and we eat a lot of chocolate and white bread. It’s not very different, unfortunately, from many other Western countries,” said co-author Dr. Claudia Suemoto, an assistant professor at the Univ. of São Paulo Medical School. “Fifty-eight percent of the calories consumed by U. S. citizens… come from ultra-processed foods.”

More than half of the average person in America’s diet comes from ultra-processed food. A lot of meals in the freezer aisle at the supermarket seem healthy. However, they fall into the ultra-processed category. They are packed with hidden salt, fat, sugar, additives and chemicals. Finding the recognizable foods in the ingredient lists can be challenging. Bottled salad dressing is also terrible for you. It’s filled with fat, sugar and chemicals. Whenever possible, it’s best to food for yourself, so you know what you’re eating.

Just 20 percent of daily calories from ultra-processed foods may take a toll on the brain. That is 400 calories out of a 2,000-calorie diet. A small order of fries from McDonald’s is 530 calories. Small things add up quickly, so watching your diet is important.

While this is a study of association, not designed to prove cause and effect, there are a number or elements to fortify the proposition that some acceleration in cognitive decay may be attributed to ultra-processed foods,” said Dr. David Katz, a specialist in preventive and lifestyle medicine and nutrition. “The sample size is substantial, and the follow-up extensive. While short of proof, this is robust enough that we should conclude ultra-processed foods are probably bad for our brains.”

There was some good news in the study! When people ate a lot of unprocessed foods like whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins, the apparent link between cognition and ultra-processed foods disappeared. It seemed that people could cancel out unhealthy foods as long as the rest of their diet was very healthy.

Dr. Katz explained the finding by saying, “Ultra-processed foods drag diet quality down, and thus their concentration in the diet is an indicator of poor diet quality in most cases. Atypical as it seems, apparently some of the participants managed it. And when diet quality was high, the observed association between ultra-processed foods and brain function abated.”

The takeaway from all this is that we should all shun ultra-processed foods as much as possible for brain health. But, if you eat them, balance them out by choosing to surround them with as many whole foods as possible.

Banner image: Ball Park Brand via Unsplash

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