Although it’s clear that a diet of sausage and ice cream won’t lead to a healthy physical life, new research shows how ultra-processed foods can also cause a significant decline in brain function.
Research presented Monday at the Alzheimer’s Society International Conference in San Diego outlined how foods like instant noodles, sugary drinks and frozen meals all play a factor in a faster rate of cognitive decline.
“It’s no secret that physical and cognitive mental health are closely linked to each other, so it’s no surprise that this latest research points to a weakness in the brain as well,” said Rafael Perez-Escamilla, professor of public health at Yale University.
“Just 100 calories from processed foods can affect your physical health. So, there are two types of cookies.”
Research has linked ultra-processed food consumption to health problems such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. “And now, we’re beginning to realize that it affects the mind,” Perez Escamilla said. “This is because they cause inflammation, which can affect neurotransmitters in the brain. Processed foods also act on a microscopic level in billions and billions of bacteria cells that (impair) functionality.”
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New research links processed food to cognitive decline
Researchers presented findings at the Alzheimer’s Society International Conference from a study – not yet peer-reviewed – in Brazil that examined the diets and cognition of 10,000 middle-aged and older adults.
The results found that participants who got 20% or more of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods experienced a much faster decline in cognitive performance over six to 10 years versus people who followed diets with fewer processed foods.
“It’s a robust study, and the evidence is very consistent with what has been observed with ultra-processed foods over time,” said Perez-Escamilla, who was not involved in the study.
Pérez Escamilla noted that processed foods require little preparation and are often easy to consume because they usually do not lead to the feeling of fullness as when eating whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, potatoes, eggs, seafood or meat. A wide range of ultra-processed foods can be hidden or even promoted as healthy.
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Previous studies of ultra-processed foods have indicated signs of cognitive decline before, specifically with an increased risk of dementia. A study published last week found that for every 10% increase in daily consumption of ultra-processed foods, people in the UK have a 25% higher risk of developing dementia.
“Ultra-processed foods are a problem not only later in life but beginning in early preschool life,” Perez-Escamilla said. “It is when children develop a taste or preference for ultra-processed foods that determines future risks.”
What is processed food?
Processed foods are items that contain very few whole ingredients and often contain flavorings, colorings, or other additives. The menu includes bread, biscuits, biscuits, fried snacks, cream cheese, ice cream, candy, soda and sausages. Frozen meals are also at the forefront of processed foods.
Studies of the American diet reveal that 58% of calories are consumed by processed foods in the United States, according to a 2016 review study.
It’s essential to look at more than just counting calories when thinking about both the mind and body, said Claudia Soimoto, study author on cognitive decline and assistant professor of geriatrics at the University of São Paulo School of Medicine.
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“No matter how many calories, no matter how much healthy food you’re trying to eat, highly processed food is not good for your cognition,” Suemoto told NBC News. “I know sometimes it’s easier to open a package and put it in the microwave, but in the long run it’s going to cost you a few years of life.”
Dr. Kate Shanahan, an expert in food toxicology and author of Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Conventional Food, calls restaurant fried foods the “worst of it all” and notes that French fries have become among the most fattening of foods.
“If you try to Google processed foods for a definition, there are different kinds of answers,” Shanahan said. “Processed foods are really just foods that contain unhealthy ingredients in large quantities. They can be processed carbs like flower, sugar, and protein powders. Seed oils are absolutely the worst thing in the food supply. We call them the eight unhealthy oils — corn oil, canola oil, and canola seed oil.” Cotton, soybean oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, rapeseed oil, and rice bran oil.”
Socio-economic factors make it difficult
Percy Griffin, director of scientific engagement for the Alzheimer’s Association, said in a statement that the latest study shows an association between processed foods and cognitive decline — not a direct cause — and that there are many considerations in consuming processed foods.
“The increase in the availability and consumption of fast, processed, and ultra-processed foods is due to a number of socioeconomic factors, including less access to healthy foods, less time to prepare foods from scratch, and an inability to afford whole food options,” Griffin said in a statement.
Just over half of the study participants were women, white or college graduates. The average age was 51.
Adrienne DePaul, a registered dietitian at Health Loft in Chicago, said the growing prevalence of ultra-processed foods can often come as a result of many Americans’ budgets and it’s important to be empathetic with those who have less money or access to fresh, whole foods when shopping from grocery shop.
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“People who are financially constrained or unable to make time to prepare meals from scratch tend to eat ultra-processed foods more frequently,” DePaul said. “We have to be careful about taking such findings and turning them into individual recommendations.”
Shanahan noted that there are still alternative ways to maintain a healthy diet: “Vegetables can be pricey and perishable too. Dairy products, eggs, and ground meat can all serve as highly nutritious foods for someone who struggles for money. Our bodies need high-quality protein, There are multiple ways to get that.”