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Eating This Every Day Could Damage Your Brain Health, Says New Study

We all want to keep our brains healthy as long as we can. Brazilian researchers who led a study of 10,000 participants found that limiting these foods in your diet could help promote greater clarity as you age.

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Ultra-processed foods have been linked to cognitive decline

This isn’t the first time researchers have concluded that ultra-processed foods negatively affect one’s health. The most recent study, presented at the 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in San Diego, found if more than 20% of your daily calories come from ultra-processed foods, you may be more likely to experience cognitive decline.

Geriatrics researchers evaluated over 10,000 Brazilian men and women for up to 10 years. After the study participants went through cognitive testing, the researchers concluded that both men and women who ate the highest amounts of processed foods experienced a 28% faster rate of global cognitive decline and a 25% faster rate of executive function decline.

According to CNN, Dr. Claudia Suemoto, one of the study’s authors, noted that in Brazil, ultra-processed foods make up 25% to 30% of the calories in the average diet. “We have McDonald’s, Burger King and we eat a lot of chocolate and white bread,” Dr. Suemoto said. She also added that calories from ultra-processed foods make up the following percentages of diets in these Western countries:

  • United States: 58%
  • Great Britain: 56.8%
  • Canada: 48%

This could mean consumers in these countries may be at greater risk for cognitive decline with age than Brazil’s rates.

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What are ultra-processed foods?

Compared to processed foods (foods that have added sugar, salt, oil, or other minimal ingredients for processing, like canned tuna or vegetables), ultra-processed foods are created from the extraction of substances. According to Harvard Health, these extractions come from fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats. These foods also likely contain artificial colors and flavors, stabilizers, or other additives to preserve them.

Typically ultra-processed foods are packaged and sometimes shelf-stable such as cookies, cakes, and salty snacks. Frozen meals, soft drinks, hot dogs, and cold cuts also contain a long list of chemical ingredients. Fast food is also considered ultra-processed, given how these foods are formed using additives and extracted ingredients.

Why do ultra-processed foods affect your brain health?

This recent study isn’t the first to make the connection between ultra-processed foods and cognitive decline. One study published in The Journals of Gerontology earlier this year concluded that consumption of ultra-processed meats, oils and spreads was associated with cognitive decline for older adults with type 2 diabetes. Another study published in Nutrition found that ultra-processed food can negatively affect the gut microbiota, which can encourage the development of neurodegenerative diseases. Plus, the study also notes that diets higher in fat and simple carbohydrates are associated with neuroinflammation and reduced cognitive function.

Unfortunately, the brain isn’t the only part of the body affected by ultra-processed foods. Studies show how high caloric intake of ultra-processed foods leads to weakened grip/muscle strength, and increased risk of cardiovascular and coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and all-cause mortality risk.

In conclusion, while a small indulgence in the food you enjoy can be beneficial for keeping up with an overall healthy lifestyle, making sure ultra-processed foods don’t take up more than 20% of your caloric intake (for 2,000 daily calories, that’s no more than 400) is a good goal to start with. For healthier grocery tips, here are 10 Secrets for Shopping Healthier at the Grocery Store.

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Kiersten Hickman
Kiersten Hickman is a journalist and content strategist with a main focus on nutrition, health, and wellness coverage. She holds an MA in Journalism from DePaul University and a Nutrition Science certificate from Stanford Medicine. Her work has been featured in publications including Taste of Home, Reader's Digest, Bustle, Buzzfeed, INSIDER, MSN, Eat This, Not That!, and more.