Ultra-Processed Foods Are Bad for Your Brain

A new study found that consuming ultra-processed foods (when more than 20% of one’s daily calories contained processed food) could increase cognitive decline.

What makes a food ultra-processed? Ultra-processed foods are any “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.”

Ultra-processed foods have one benefit: convenience. They’re quick, easy, require no prep or cooking, and can stay “fresh” for months or even years. These conveniences, however, don’t transfer to long-term health.

In addition to obesity, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, a new study found that ultra-processed foods can also lead to cognitive decline, affecting executive functioning (learning and decision-making).

The study observed over 10,000 Brazilians for almost 10 years. They were all asked about their diet during this time. For the study, cognitive testing was performed at the beginning and end of the experiment – this included immediate and delayed word recollection, word recognition, and verbal fluency.

In Brazil, 25-30% of calorie intake comes from ultra-processed foods. The study found that individuals who ate the most ultra-processed foods experienced cognitive decline 28% faster than those who ate the least amount.

“The new results are quite compelling and emphasize the critical role for proper nutrition in preserving and promoting brain health and reducing risk for brain diseases as we get older.” – said Rudy Tanzi, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and director of the genetics and aging research unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

According to Tanzi, what many processed foods have in common and what makes them so unhealthy is high amounts of sugar, salt, and fat, which individually and collectively cause internal inflammation, which he says is “perhaps the most major threat to healthy aging in the body and brain.”

The health risks of ultra-processed foods are two-fold: not only do they contain unhealthy ingredients in unhealthy amounts, but these processed foods are crowding out or taking the place of healthy plant foods that have real nutritional value, including fiber which feeds the gut microbiome that plays an essential role in protecting us from disease, including brain diseases.

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