New Research Shows That Eating Processed Foods Affects Cognitive Behavior

A new neurological study suggests that eating large amounts of processed foods may impact the body’s health and the mind.

The study, which was published last week in the medical journal Neurology, determined that the consumption of “ultra-processed foods” may be linked to an increased risk of cognitive disorders like dementia.

According to a press release by the American Academy of Neurology, ultra-processed foods include any processed food product that is low in protein and fiber and high in fat, salt, and sugar.

These include packaged chips and snack foods, soft drinks, condiments (like ketchup and mayonnaise), flavored cereals, ice cream, packaged bread, and more.

“Ultra-processed foods are meant to be convenient and tasty, but they diminish the quality of a person’s diet,” said author Huiping Li, Ph.D. of China’s Tianjin Medical University.

“These foods may also contain food additives or molecules from packaging or produced during heating, all of which have been shown in other studies to have negative effects on thinking and memory skills.”

According to the press release, to trace the effects of ultra-processed foods, researchers followed the eating habits and health data of 72,000+ U.K. residents over 55 for an average of 10 years.

Participants filled out daily questionnaires about their eating habits throughout the study, which helped researchers sort participants into four groups based on the quantity of ultra-processed foods consumed.

Processed foods may be tied to dementia, researchers found

By the conclusion of the study, 518 of the participants had been diagnosed with dementia. In addition, researchers found that 105 of 18,000 members of the lowest-consumption group were diagnosed with dementia, while diagnoses were doled out to 150 of 18,000 members of the highest-consumption group, per the news release.

Researchers determined that a 10% increase in daily intake of ultra-processed foods resulted in a 25% greater risk of dementia.

They also found that reducing the daily intake of ultra-processed foods (in favor of unprocessed or minimally processed foods) by 10% resulted in a 19% lower risk of dementia.

“Our research not only found that ultra-processed foods are associated with an increased risk of dementia, it found replacing them with healthy options may decrease dementia risk,” Li shared in the press release.

“Increasing unprocessed or minimally processed foods by only 50 grams a day, which is equivalent to half an apple, a serving of corn, or a bowl of bran cereal, and simultaneously decreasing ultra-processed foods by 50 grams a day … is associated with 3% decreased risk of dementia.”

Although the researchers emphasized that further studies are needed to confirm a link between processed food and cognitive disorders, the initial data indicates that making small changes to one’s daily diet could lead to meaningful improvements in brain health.

As Li notes, “It’s encouraging to know that small and manageable changes in diet may make a difference in a person’s risk of dementia.”


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