We all know that ultra-processed foods with little nutritional value have a negative impact on our overall health. Namely, a poor diet has been linked to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
Now, there is growing evidence that ultra-processed foods can be even more damaging to the body, specifically when it comes to cognitive function as we age.
In a recent study published in JAMA Neurology, middle-aged adults who consumed more ultra-processed foods were more likely to suffer from cognitive decline.
Researchers in Brazil analyzed 10,775 subjects over the course of eight years. The mean age at the study’s onset was 51 years old. Additionally, 54.6% were women, 53.1% were white, and 56.6% had a least a college degree.
During the study, scientists asked participants to complete a food frequency questionnaire. Based on the NOVA classification system, the questionnaire classified foods into separate categories indicating the extent to which they were processed.
Cognitive tests were also conducted in conjunction with this data to determine any possible cognitive impairments. In conclusion, the study revealed some eye-opening results.
How Ultra-Processed Foods May Affect Cognitive Health
There is no doubt that chips, cookies, and sugary drinks are not the healthiest choices, but this study shows that these guilty pleasures can be so much more harmful than only a few extra calories.
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To start, the study found that individuals who consumed 20% or more of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods demonstrated a concerning 28% faster rate of “global cognitive decline” over the study duration compared to those who consumed less than 20%. Among the many mental abilities related to global cognitive functioning are learning, thinking, reasoning, recalling information, language, and solving problems.
The effects didn’t end there as researchers also discovered that the same group showed a 25% faster rate of “executive function decline” as well. Having poor executive functioning makes it difficult to plan, multitask, and focus attention.
Researchers noted that while there was clearly a link between consuming ultra-processed foods and both global cognitive and executive function decline, the linear association was small. In layman’s terms, linear correlation is simply a measurement of the association between two variables. Nevertheless, deviations from the norm cannot be ignored.
“Intact cognitive function is key to successful aging,” the authors wrote. “Therefore, despite the small effect size of the association between [ultra-processed food] consumption and cognitive decline, our findings are meaningful to cognitive health.”
Additionally, these findings support a similar study published by the American Academy of Neurology in September 2022 that found an increased risk of dementia in those who had a diet higher in ultra-processed foods.
A Closer Look At Your Diet
Many of us probably feel comfortable saying we eat less than 20% of our total daily calories from ultra-processed foods. But you may be surprised at just how quickly that quick snack or treat throughout the day can add up.
Corresponding with MedPage Today, study author Natalia Gomes Gonçalves, Ph.D., demonstrated just this.
“Considering a person who eats a total of 2,000 [calories] a day, 20% of daily calories from ultra-processed foods are about two 1.5-ounce Kit Kat bars, or five slices of bread, or about a third of an 8.5-ounce package of chips,” she said.
Moreover, what some of us consider ultra-processed foods might differ from researchers’ definitions.
While the usual suspects—foods that are high in added sugar, salt, and/or fat and lacking in fiber or protein—like ice cream, chips, and soda come to mind, this category can also include items with food additives or contaminations from packaging that can also have a negative impact on cognitive health. As reported by MedPage Today, this can include canned tomatoes, ketchup, and even packaged guacamole.
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A lot of the complication stems from how to cleanly define foods as unprocessed, minimally processed, processed, or ultra-processed. Factors such as differences in levels of processing across brands and the ingredients used play into the final healthiness of a product that doesn’t always fit nicely in one box.
Small Changes Can Add Up
While obviously much easier said than done, evaluating and working to improve your diet during midlife can make a big impact on your future year. And it doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to happen overnight. Hell, it doesn’t even have to happen during midlife.
“Middle age is an important period of life to adopt preventive measures through lifestyle changes since the choices we make at this age will influence our older years,” Gomes Gonçalves said. “This does not mean that older adults will not have benefits if they adopt a healthier lifestyle. Research has shown over and over again that we benefit from healthy choices at any age.”
Looking back at the study examining the link between ultra-processed food consumption and increased risk of dementia, researchers found that individuals who swap about 10% of ultra-processed foods for healthier alternatives were able to lower their dementia risk by an astounding 19%.
Healthy lifestyle choices can be made at any age and in any amount. It’s all about one step at a time.