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Ultra-Processed Foods Are Hammering Our Brains

Not one but two learned studies released in the past week claim eating ultraprocessed foods are hammering our brains. They’re just the latest in a long line of research efforts stretching back almost a decade to condemn processed foods for a plethora of ills…

Cognitive Decline - © SHRM.comEating even modest amounts of ultraprocessed foods can accelerate cognitive decline alarmingly.

What we’re talking about

A study for the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) further bolsters the growing learned consensus that consuming significant amounts of processed and ultra-processed foods can wreck your brain. Another, from University of São Paulo Medical School (Brazil) says folks whose diets include as little as 20 percent ultra-processed foods can suffer an average cognitive decline of as much as 28 percent.

The AAN study report preamble defines ultra-processed foods thus: “[They] are high in added sugar, fat and salt, and low in protein and fiber. They include soft drinks, salty and sugary snacks, ice cream, sausage, deep-fried chicken, yogurt, canned baked beans and tomatoes, ketchup, mayonnaise, packaged guacamole and hummus, packaged breads and flavored cereals.” Not to mention most junk and Fast Foods.

The AAN study in a nutshell

“Ultra-processed foods are meant to be convenient and tasty, but they diminish the quality of a person’s diet,” said study author Huiping Li, PhD, of Tianjin Medical University in China. “These foods may also contain food additives or molecules from packaging or produced during heating, all of which have been shown in other studies to have negative effects on thinking and memory skills. Our research not only found that ultra-processed foods are associated with an increased risk of dementia, it found replacing them with healthy options may decrease dementia risk.”

What they did

For the study, researchers identified 72,083 people from the UK Biobank, a large database containing the health information of half a million people living in the United Kingdom. Participants were age 55 and older and did not have dementia at the start of the study. They were followed for an average of 10 years. By the end of the study, 518 people were diagnosed with dementia.

What they found

On average, ultra-processed foods made up 9 percent of the daily diet of people in the lowest group, an average of 225 grams per day, compared to 28 percent for people in the highest group, or an average of 814 grams per day. One serving of items like pizza or fish sticks was equivalent to 150 grams. The main food group contributing to high ultra-processed food intake was beverages, followed by sugary products and ultra-processed dairy (i.e.- ice cream).

The takeaway

“Our results also show increasing unprocessed or minimally processed foods by only 50 grams a day, which is equivalent to half an apple, a serving of corn, or a bowl of bran cereal, and simultaneously decreasing ultra-processed foods by 50 grams a day, equivalent to a chocolate bar or a serving of fish sticks, is associated with 3 percent decreased risk of dementia,” said Li. “It’s encouraging to know that small and manageable changes in diet may make a difference in a person’s risk of dementia.”

The Harvard study in a nutshell

The study preamble notes: “Ultraprocessed foods are defined 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’.”

What they did

The study report preamble explains: “The study, presented Monday at the 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in San Diego, followed over 10,000 Brazilians for up to 10 years. Just over half of the study participants were women, White or college educated, while the average age was 51. […] Cognitive testing, which included immediate and delayed word recall, word recognition and verbal fluency were performed at the beginning and end of the study, and participants were asked about their diet.”

What they found

“People who consumed more than 20 percent of [their] daily calories from processed foods had a 28 percent faster decline in global cognition and a 25 percent faster decline in executive functioning compared to people who ate less than 20 percent,” said study co-author Natalia Gonçalves.

For a person who eats 2,000 calories a day, 20% would equal 400 or more calories. For comparison, a small order of fries and regular cheeseburger from McDonalds contains a total of 530 calories.

The takeaway

“In Brazil, ultraprocessed 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 study co-author Dr. Claudia Suemoto. “Fifty-eight percent of the calories consumed by United States citizens, 56.8 percent of the calories consumed by British citizens, and 48 percent of the calories consumed by Canadians come from ultraprocessed foods.”

“People need to know they should cook more and prepare their own food from scratch. I know. We say we don’t have time but it really doesn’t take that much time,” Suemoto said. “And it’s worth it because you’re going to protect your heart and guard your brain from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease,” she added. “That’s the take-home message: Stop buying things that are superprocessed.”

My take

The Harvard study also found that those in the study who ate the most ultraprocessed foods were, “more likely to be younger, women, white, had higher education and income, and were more likely to have never smoked, and less likely to be current alcohol consumers.” Now, consider all the studies that have found younger people are much more likely to avail themselves of convenience foods than older folks, and you have a troubling situation.

As the population ages, older folks will pass on. And those younger folks who are more likely to consume processed and ultra-processed foods will also age, eating more bad stuff over a longer period of time. If the new studies are right, they’ll suffer even more than 25 to 28 percent cognitive decline. Can you imagine what a mess the world could end up in?

Taken together, all the studies over recent years condemning processed and ultraprocessed foods make a pretty persuasive case. I concur with Suemoto, that we should all eat more home-prepared, fresh foods and reduce the amount of processed food we consume. In fact, it seems imperative that we do if we’re all to enjoy our lives to the fullest!

~ Maggie J.