While it’s obvious that a diet of hot dogs and ice cream doesn’t lead to a healthy physical lifestyle, new research shows how ultra-processed foods can also cause significant decreases in brain function.
Research presented Monday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in San Diego outlined how foods like instant noodles, sugary drinks and frozen meals all play a factor in faster cognitive decline.
“It’s no secret that physical and mental-cognitive health are closely linked, so it’s not surprising that this latest research also suggests brain impairment,” said Rafael Perez-Escamilla, a professor of public health at Yale University.
“Just 100 calories of processed food can harm your physical health. So that’s two cookies.”
Research has linked consumption of ultra-processed foods to health problems such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. “And now we’re starting to see that they affect the mind,” Perez-Escamilla said. “That’s because they cause inflammation, which can affect neurotransmitters in the brain. Processed foods also act at the micro level, with billions and billions of bacterial cells that (impair) function.”
New research links processed foods to cognitive decline
The researchers presented the results of a previously peer-reviewed study in Brazil that examined the diet and cognition of 10,000 middle-aged and older adults at the international conference of the Alzheimer’s Association.
The results showed that participants who consumed 20% or more of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods experienced a much faster decline in cognitive function over a six to 10-year period than people on a diet low in processed foods contained.
“It’s a solid study, and the evidence is very consistent with what has been observed over time for ultra-processed foods,” said Perez-Escamilla, who was not affiliated with the study.
Processed foods require little preparation and are often easy to consume because they don’t typically induce a feeling of satiety like eating whole foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, potatoes, eggs, seafood or meat, Perez Escamilla noted. And a wide range of ultra-processed foods can be disguised or even advertised as healthy.
Previous studies on ultra-processed foods have already shown signs of cognitive decline, namely with an increased risk of dementia. A study published last week found that for every 10% increase in daily intake of ultra-processed foods in the UK, people had a 25% higher risk of developing dementia.
“Ultra-processed foods are a problem not only later in life, but early in life, in infancy, in preschool,” Perez-Escamilla said. “Then children develop a taste or liking for ultra-processed foods that determines future risk.”
What are processed foods?
Processed foods are products with very few whole ingredients and often contain flavors, colors, or other additives. The list would include bread, crackers, cookies, fried snacks, cream cheese, ice cream, candy, soda, and hot dogs. Frozen foods are also at the forefront of processed foods.
Studies on the American diet show that processed foods account for 58% of calories in the United States, according to a 2016 peer-reviewed study.
Claudia Suemoto, author of the study on cognitive decline and assistant professor of geriatrics at the University of Sao Paulo School of Medicine, said it’s important to look beyond just counting calories when looking at both the mind and body.
“Regardless of the amount of calories, regardless of the amount of healthy food you try to eat, the ultra-processed food isn’t good for your cognition,” Suemoto told NBC News. “I know sometimes it’s easier to open a packet and throw it in the microwave, but in the long run it will cost you a few years of your life.”
dr Cate Shanahan, food toxicology expert and author of “Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food,” describes fried food in restaurants as “the worst of the worst,” noting that french fries are among the thickest of foods.
“If you try to google processed foods to get a definition, there are all kinds of answers,” Shanahan said. “Processed foods are really just foods that contain high levels of unhealthy ingredients. That can be processed carbohydrates like flowers and sugar, protein powder. Seed oils are the absolute worst thing in the food supply. We call them the eight unhealthy oils — corn oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, canola oil, and rice bran oil.”
Socioeconomic factors complicate this
Percy Griffin, director of scientific engagement for the Alzheimer’s Association, said in a statement that the latest study shows a correlation between processed foods and cognitive decline — no direct cause — and that there are many considerations about eating processed foods.
“An increase in the availability and consumption of quickly processed and ultra-processed foods is due to a range of socioeconomic factors, including reduced access to healthy foods, less time spent preparing foods from scratch, and an inability to engage in whole foods afford,” Griffin said in a statement.
Just over half of the study participants were women, white or college graduates. The average age was 51 years.
Adrienne DePaul, a registered dietitian at Health Loft in Chicago, said the growing prevalence of ultra-processed foods is often due to many Americans’ budgets and it’s important to be compassionate to those who have less money or access to fresher, Whole foods when grocery shopping.
“Ultra-processed foods tend to be consumed more frequently by people who are financially constrained or who can’t dedicate time to meal prep,” DePaul said. “We must be careful about converting such findings into individual recommendations.”
Noting that there are still workarounds to maintaining a healthy diet, Shanahan noted: “Vegetables can also be expensive and perishable. Dairy products, eggs, and ground beef can serve as highly nutritious foods for someone struggling with money. Our bodies need high quality protein and there are several ways to achieve that.”
Eating more ultra-processed foods is associated with an increased risk of dementia
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Citation: Eating Processed Foods Harms Your Brain, Study Says Even ‘2 Cookies’ Can Affect Health (2022 August 3) Retrieved August 3, 2022 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2022-08- foods-brain-cookies-affect-health.html
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