Talk about food for thought.
A growing body of research suggests that ultra-processed foods like frozen pizzas and breakfast cereals high in sugars, fats and empty calories are bad for your health. Now, a new large-scale study presented at the 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in San Diego this week offers more evidence that people who get a high percentage of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods are also at risk. higher cognitive decline.
A team of researchers from the Faculty of Medicine of the University of São Paulo in Brazil followed a diverse sample of more than 10,000 Brazilians for 10 years. Subjects completed food frequency questionnaires to record how often they ate foods including: unprocessed or minimally processed ingredients (i.e. whole foods such as fresh, dried or frozen fruits, vegetables, whole grains, meat, fish and milk that has undergone minimal processing, such as pasteurization); processed foods (canned fruits, artisan breads and cheeses, salted, smoked or pickled meats or fish); and ultra-processed foods (industrial formulations of processed food substances such as oils, fats, sugars, starch, artificial flavors and colors, but containing little or no whole foods).
Subjects also took cognitive tests up to three times a year, including memory tests and word recognition tests, to monitor their cognitive functioning; that is, mental abilities such as learning, thinking, reasoning, memorization, problem solving, decision making and attention. They also took regular verbal fluency tests to track their executive functioning; that is, the mental skills that help an individual plan, monitor, and successfully achieve their goals.
The results? Those who ate 20% or more of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods had a 28% faster rate of cognitive decline and a 25% faster rate of executive function decline, compared to study subjects who ate the least food. processed foods. In other words, a person on a 2,000 calorie a day diet who consumed 400 of their daily calories from ready-to-eat frozen meals, processed meats, breakfast cereals, and sugary drinks each day saw a faster rate of cognitive decline. .
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And many of us eat these ultra-processed foods. The researchers noted that 58% of the calories consumed by US citizens come from ultra-processed foods. We are not alone; 56.8% of the calories consumed by British citizens, 48% of the calories consumed by Canadians and up to 30% of the calories consumed by Brazilians also come from these ultra-processed foods, the researchers added. And despite increases in plant-based alternatives (some of which are themselves highly processed) and consumption of poultry – and a decline in the purchase and consumption of unprocessed red meat – another recent report has noted that Americans still eat as many processed foods as they do. two decades ago, including deli meats, sausages, hot dogs, ham and bacon.
Related: Putting less sugar in packaged foods could prevent millions of Americans from getting sick and save the United States more than $160 billion
But there was an interesting pitfall in the cognitive decline study: if the overall quality of a subject’s diet was otherwise very high (meaning they ate lots of whole, unprocessed foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins), then that association between ultra-processed foods and dementia is gone. So the good news is that you can counter the consumption of these often cheap and readily available ultra-processed foods by cooking more at home (which can also save you money) and prepping your food with whole foods such as fresh or frozen foods, whole grains, and lean meats and proteins.
“Limiting the consumption of ultra-processed foods, particularly in middle-aged adults, may be an effective form of preventing cognitive decline,” the researchers wrote in their findings published this week in the journal JAMA Neurology. Indeed, it lines up with what health officials like the American Heart Association have said: rather than calling individual foods “good” or “bad,” people should focus on eating an overall healthy diet. , rich in fruits and vegetables, whole. low-processed grains and lean/high-fiber proteins.
Read more: More ‘good’ foods than ‘bad’: 10 healthy eating ‘patterns’ to prevent heart disease and death
But brain health isn’t the only concern when it comes to ultra-processed foods. Here are four more ways these ready-to-eat meals and snacks can harm your health.
Processed foods increase your risk of heart disease
An analysis of nearly 30,000 people published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine in 2020 suggested that eating two servings of red meat and processed meat each week – such as two hot dogs or four pieces of bacon – was “significantly associated” with heart disease.
“It is worth trying to reduce [consumption of] red meat and processed meat like pepperoni, bologna and deli meats,” wrote study lead author Norrina Allen, an associate professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Researchers from the University of Paris collected food and health data from more than 105,000 people aged 18 and over over a five-year period for a 2019 report. They found that those who ate the most “ultra-processed” foods had a greater risk of heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular problems.
The American Heart Association also released a new science-based statement last year focused on overall healthy eating habits to protect your ticker, which included choosing minimally processed foods (like a bag of salad or toasted nuts and not salty) rather than ultra-processed foods (like sugary cereals, potato chips, or wieners) whenever possible. The dietary guidelines also recommended limiting the consumption of foods and beverages containing added sugars. And he suggested choosing or preparing foods with little or no salt.
Processed foods increase cancer risk
According to a 2018 study published in the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal, people who ate 10% more ultra-processed foods saw their risk of cancer increase by more than 10%, including breast cancer.
So when the American Cancer Society updated its dietary recommendations for preventing cancer in 2020, cutting out processed foods was at the top of the list, as was cutting back on sugary drinks, red meat and soft drinks. alcoholic. The American Cancer Society has recommended stacking your plate with a variety of whole, unprocessed foods and vegetables. especially dark green, red and orange vegetables, as well as fiber-rich legumes like beans and peas. The guide also promoted whole grains, whole fruits in a variety of colors, and general foods “nutrient-dense in amounts that help achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.”
Processed foods reduce life expectancy
So, given reports suggesting that processed foods are linked to a host of chronic health problems like cancer, heart disease and dementia – not to mention obesity, as those on an ultra-processed diet could consume up to 500 more calories per day compared to those who eat whole foods – it shouldn’t be too surprising that research has also found a link between eating these foods and premature death.
Researchers from the University of Navarre in Pamplona, Spain, documented the eating habits of more than 20,000 Spanish university graduates between 1999 and 2014. They found that people who frequently ate heavily processed foods (for example, more of four servings of each per day) had a 62% increased risk of premature death compared to those who indulged in these foods less often.
And the 2020 study which noted that eating two servings of red meat and processed meat each week was linked to heart disease also found that eating these tasty but risky foods was also “significantly associated” with death. In fact, people who ate two servings of red meat or processed meat a week — but no poultry or fish — were associated with a 3% higher risk of all causes of death.
Processed foods are harming the planet – and coming back to bite you
Fostering the growth and production of processed foods – which often rely on the same handful of basic ingredients such as sugar cane, corn, rice and wheat – has led to the destruction of more diverse plant-based offerings. This impacts agrobiodiversity – or the variety and variability of animals, plants and microorganisms used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture, which affects soil health and profitable resilience to long term of agriculture, according to a study published in BMJ Global Health earlier this year. In addition, the production of ultra-processed foods uses large amounts of land, water, energy, herbicides and fertilizers, which harms the environment by emitting greenhouse gases and creating tons of packaging waste.
Read more: Processed foods like ramen packets and frozen pizza can hurt your heart — and the world, study finds
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