While it’s clear that a diet of hot dogs and ice cream won’t lead to a healthy physical life, new research shows how ultra-processed foods can also cause significant declines in brain function.
Research presented Monday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in San Diego outlined how foods such as instant noodles, sugary drinks and frozen meals all play a role in a faster rate of cognitive decline.
“It’s no secret that physical and mental-cognitive health are closely linked, so it’s no surprise that this latest research also suggests brain damage,” said Rafael Perez-Escamilla, a professor of public health at Yale University.
“Just 100 calories from processed foods can affect your physical health, so that’s two cookies.”
Research has linked the consumption of ultra-processed foods to health problems such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. “And now we’re starting to realize 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 on a micro level with billions and billions of bacterial cells functioning (deteriorating).”
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New research links processed foods to cognitive decline
Researchers presented the findings at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference from a study — not yet peer-reviewed — in Brazil that examined the diet and cognition of 10,000 middle-aged and older adults.
The findings showed that participants who got 20% or more of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods saw a much faster decline in cognitive performance over a period of six to 10 years compared with those on a diet low in processed foods.
“It’s a robust study and the evidence is very consistent with what’s been seen over time with ultra-processed foods,” said Perez-Escamilla, who was not involved in the study.
Processed foods require little preparation and are often easy to consume because they usually don’t make you feel as full as eating whole foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, potatoes, eggs, seafood or meat, noted Perez Escamilla. And a wide variety of ultra-processed foods can be disguised or even promoted as healthy.
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Previous studies of ultra-processed foods have previously indicated 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, people in the UK had a 25% higher risk of developing dementia.
“Ultra-processed foods are a problem not just in later life, but from early childhood, preschool life,” Perez-Escamilla said. “That’s when kids develop a taste or preference for ultra-processed foods that determine future risk.”
What is processed food?
Processed foods are items with very few whole ingredients and often contain flavorings, colorings or other additives. The list includes bread, crackers, cookies, fried snacks, cream cheese, ice cream, candy, soda, and hot dogs. Frozen meals are also at the forefront of processed foods.
Research on the American diet shows that 58% of calories in the U.S. are consumed through processed foods, 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 essential to look at more than just counting calories when considering both mind and body. .
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“Irrespective of the amount of calories, regardless of the amount of healthy foods you are trying to eat, the ultra-processed foods are not good for your cognition,” Suemoto told NBC News. “I know sometimes it’s easier to open a package and throw it in the microwave, but in the long run, it’s going to cost you years of your life.”
dr. Cate Shanahan, a food toxicology expert and the author of “Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food,” describes fried foods in restaurants as “the worst of the worst” and noted that French fries are one of the most fattening of all. foods.
“If you try Googling processed foods for a definition, there are all different kinds of answers,” Shanahan said. “Processed foods are really just foods with unhealthy ingredients in large quantities. That could be process carbohydrates like flour and sugar, protein powders. Seed oils are definitely the worst 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.”
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 a link between processed foods and cognitive decline — not a direct cause — and that there are many considerations in consuming processed foods.
“An increase in the availability and consumption of fast, processed and ultra-processed foods is due to a number of socioeconomic factors, including low access to healthy foods, less time to prepare food from scratch and the inability to afford whole food options,” Griffin said in a statement.
Just over half of the study participants were women, white or highly educated. The mean age was 51 years.
Adrienne DePaul, a registered dietitian at Health Loft in Chicago, said the growing prevalence of ultra-processed foods can often be a result of many Americans’ budgets and that it’s important to be empathetic to those who have less money or access to fresher whole foods when grocery shopping.
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“Ultra-processed foods are more commonly consumed by people who have financial limitations or who can’t spend time preparing meals from scratch,” DePaul said. “We have to be careful about taking such results and turning them into individualized recommendations.”
Shanahan noted that there are still solutions to maintain a healthy diet: “Vegetables can be expensive and also highly perishable. Dairy, eggs, and ground meats can work as highly nutritious foods for someone who has money problems. Our bodies need high-quality protein, and there are multiple ways to get it.”