If you’re over 30, for example, the worry of one day having dementia has probably crossed your mind. Many worry about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease because there is no cure. While science can’t stop this devastating disease, a new study suggests something that’s well within our ability to reduce our risk: reducing our intake of ultra-processed foods. You know, the kind you like: sodas, chips, hot dogs, donuts, burgers, fries, white bread, pizza, and funnel cakes.
The study, recently published in JAMA Neurology, has recruited more than 10,000 people between the ages of 35 and 74 in 6 Brazilian cities. Brazilians eat a lot of fast food, like in the United States, and about 20-30% of their daily calories come from ultra-processed foods.
Researchers at the University of São Paulo Medical School gave participants cognitive tests at the start and end of the 10-year study and compared the results to the diets reported by the participants. The analysis found that men and women who ate the most ultra-processed foods had a 28% faster rate of overall cognitive decline and a 25% faster decline in executive function in the brain compared to people who ate the least junk food.
Global brain function refers to large-scale activity throughout the brain, while executive functions, processed in the prefrontal cortex, include memory, problem solving, attention, and self-control, among others.
Read on to learn more about what this study may mean for your brain health, and for more healthy eating tips, check out This Supplement May Improve Cognitive Health As You Age.
Ultra-processed foods and your brain
The observational study did not prove direct cause and effect of eating ultra-processed foods, but the association is likely considering further clinical research. “The study results are not surprising because we know that diets high in ultra-processed foods are linked to higher rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and these are also factors. risk associated with a higher risk of cognitive decline,” says dietitian Julie Upton, Dt.P.member of the Eat this, not that! Medical Review Board. “Foods that are fattening and bad for the heart tend to be bad for the brain too.”
20-30% ultra-processed foods in a total daily calorie intake of 2,000 equals between 400-600 calories. It’s not hard to swallow when you think about it. Some sweetened blended coffee drinks weigh in at 380 calories, and Wendy’s Dave’s Cheeseburger alone has around 600 calories.
It’s easy to spot ultra-processed foods if you look at the packaging. Their ingredient lists are usually very long and contain preservatives, colorings, and hard-to-pronounce chemicals. Then there are highly processed foods that are harder to recognize like unwholemeal breads and baked goods, yogurts with added sugars, canned soups and potted sauces.
It’s also important to note that not all canned or canned processed foods are bad for the brain. “Processing foods to some degree is certainly okay. Like canned milk and beans, that’s totally fine,” says Tobi Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, a Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Family Immunity Cookbook. “It’s the ultra-processed foods highlighted in the Brazilian study here that you want to eat in smaller amounts.”
food for thought
The good news from this study on foods bad for the brain is that the people studied who ate a healthy whole-food diet with few ultra-processed foods tended to have no decline in brain power. “Rather than targeting foods to avoid or cut out, the best approach to a truly healthy lifestyle is to focus on what to eat more of or add to your diet,” suggests Lisa Moskovitz, Dt.P., CEO of NY Nutrition Group and author of The Core 3 Healthy Eating Plan. “Prioritize nutrient-dense whole foods and it will naturally crowd out other foods that don’t promote health.”
Eating with brain health in mind is, well, a no-brainer. It’s like eating for heart health: eat a healthy diet high in vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and low in saturated fat and added sugars, Upton advises. Doing this will “keep blood vessels clear to maximize nutrients and oxygen to the brain to help stave off cognition decline,” she says.
Jeff Csatari, a contributing writer for Eat This, Not That!, is responsible for publishing Galvanized Media books and magazines and advising journalism students through the Zinczenko New Media Center at Bethlehem Moravian University, in Pennsylvania. Learn more about Jeff
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