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We all eat them – ultra-processed foods such as frozen pizzas and ready meals make our busy lives much easier. Plus, they’re pretty darn tasty – who isn’t sensitive to hot dogs, sausages, burgers, fries, soda, cookies, cakes, candies, donuts, and ice cream, to name a few?
If more than 20% of your daily calorie intake is from ultra-processed foods, you may be increasing your risk of cognitive decline, new research suggests found.
This amount would equate to about 400 calories per day on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. For comparison, a small order of fries and the regular McDonald’s cheeseburger contains a total of 530 calories.
The part of the brain involved in executive functioning – the ability to process information and make decisions – is particularly affected, according to the study published Monday in JAMA Neurology.
Men and women in the study who ate the most ultra-processed foods had a 25% faster rate of executive function decline and a 28% faster rate of overall cognitive impairment compared to those who ate the least amount of over-processed foods.
“Although this is an association study, not designed to prove cause and effect, there are a number of elements to support the proposition that some acceleration of cognitive decline may be attributed to ultra-processed foods,” said Dr. David Katz, a specialist in preventive medicine and lifestyle and nutrition, who was not involved in the study.
“The sample size is large and the follow-up extensive. Although the evidence is lacking, it is strong enough for us to conclude that ultra-processed foods are probably bad for our brains.
There was an interesting twist, however. If the quality of the overall diet was high—meaning the person also ate plenty of whole, unprocessed fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy sources of protein—the association between ultra-processed foods and decline cognitive is gone, Katz said.
“Ultra-processed foods lead to lower diet quality, and therefore their concentration in the diet is an indicator of poor diet quality in most cases,” Katz said. “As atypical as it may seem, apparently some of the participants have succeeded. And when diet quality was high, the observed association between ultra-processed foods and brain function decreased.
The study followed more than 10,000 Brazilians for 10 years. Just over half of the study participants were female, white or college educated, while the average age was 51.
Cognitive tests, which included immediate and delayed word recall, word recognition and verbal fluency, were performed at the start and end of the study, and participants were asked about their diet.
“In Brazil, ultra-processed foods make up 25-30% of total caloric intake. We have McDonald’s, Burger King, and we eat a lot of chocolate and white bread. It is not very different, unfortunately, from many other Western countries,” co-author Dr. Claudia Suemoto, assistant professor in the division of geriatrics at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of São Paulo, told CNN when the study summary was released in August.
“Fifty-eight percent of the calories consumed by US citizens, 56.8% of the calories consumed by British citizens, and 48% of the calories consumed by Canadians come from ultra-processed foods,” Suemoto said.
Ultra-processed foods are defined as “industrial formulations of food substances (oils, fats, sugars, starch and protein isolates) that contain little or no whole foods and generally include flavors, colors, emulsifiers and ‘other cosmetic additives’, according to the study. .
Those in the study who ate the most ultra-processed foods were “more likely to be younger, female, white, had higher education and income, and were more likely to have never smoked , and less likely to be current alcohol users,” the study found. .
In addition to the impact on cognition, ultra-processed foods are already known to increase the risk of obesity, heart and circulatory problems, diabetes, cancer, and a shorter lifespan.
“Ultra-processed foods in general are bad for all of us,” said Katz, president and founder of the nonprofit True Health Initiative, a global coalition of lifestyle medicine experts founded on evidence.
Ultra-processed foods are typically high in sugar, salt, and fat, all of which promote inflammation throughout the body, which is “perhaps the most significant threat to healthy aging of the body and brain,” said Dr. Rudy Tanzi, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He did not participate in the study.
“Meanwhile, since they’re convenient as a quick meal, they also replace the consumption of plant-fiber-rich foods that are important for maintaining the health and balance of the trillions of bacteria in your gut microbiome,” Tanzi added. , “which is especially important for brain health and reducing the risk of age-related brain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.
How can you prevent this from happening to you? If you include ultra-processed foods in your diet, try to counter them by also eating high-quality whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
“The conclusion suggested here is that ultra-processed foods are, indeed, an important ‘ingredient,’ but the exposure that should be the focus of public health efforts is the overall quality of the diet,” Katz said. .
A simple way to ensure food quality is to cook and prepare your food from scratch, Suemoto said.
“We say we don’t have time, but it really doesn’t take long,” Suemoto said.
“And it’s worth it because you’re going to protect your heart and protect your brain from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. This is the take home message: stop buying super-processed products. »
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