Ultra-processed Diet Linked to Cognitive Decline

Ultra-processed foods are not only linked to weight gain, chronic health conditions like diabetes and heart disease, as well as some cancers, but new research shows that eating these foods regularly may also contribute to cognitive decline in older age. 

According to a recent CNN Heath report, eating a diet that includes more than 20 percent ultra-processed foods like frozen pizza, hot dogs, burgers, french fries, soda, cookies, and packaged and prepared meals may speed up cognitive decline in adults.   

Research presented at the 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference followed 10,000 Brazilians for up to 10 years with an average age of 51.  Those who consumed more than 20 percent of their daily calories in processed foods had a 28 percent faster decline in global cognition and a 25 percent faster decline in executive function than people who ate fewer processed foods. 

Ultra-processed foods are industrial formulations of food substances but contain little or no whole foods.  These products consisting of oils, fats, sugars, starch, and protein isolates usually include flavorings, colorings, emulsifiers, and other additives to make the products appear more appetizing.   In the United States, 58 percent of calories consumed come from ultra-processed foods, and 48 percent of calories consumed by Canadians come from these products.  Younger white women with higher education and income, who had never smoked and were less likely to drink alcohol were among those who consumed the most ultra-processed foods, according to the study.  

Although processed foods are quick, cheap, and convenient, they are also lacking in important nutrients and plant fiber that support gut health – an essential component of overall wellness, including brain health.  Ultra-processed foods are also usually very high in sugar, salt, and fat that can trigger inflammation, accelerating aging in the body and brain. 

The takeaway?  By starting to swap out highly processed foods, people of all ages can help to protect their health and cognition in later life.  Keeping a good stock of healthy snacks like fresh fruits, hard-boiled eggs, nuts, and veggies can help curb cravings.  Overnight oats and other whole grains such as brown rice and whole grain bread can also boost fiber intake and protect against chronic illness.  Read more about how to limit processed foods by following this link to a recent post in Eating Well’s Clean Eating Diet Center.