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Eating lots of ultra processed foods could harm your brain

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Researchers report that although chips, pizza & cookies are delicious, a diet full of ultra-processed foods like these may contribute to brain deterioration.

Ultra-processed foods have lots of added and unhealthy ingredients, such as sugar, salt, fat, artificial colours and preservatives. Examples include frozen meals, soft drinks, hot dogs and cold cuts, fast food, packaged cookies, cakes and salty snacks.

These foods have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome and obesity.

Now, scientists in Brazil have tied them to a greater risk of declining brainpower. The findings were published online Dec. 5 in the journal JAMA Neurology.

The study couldn’t prove cause-and-effect. However, “the cognitive decline could be the result of microvascular lesions in the brain, reduced brain volume or even systemic inflammation caused by the consumption of ultra-processed foods,” theorised study lead researcher Natalia Gomes Goncalves. She is in the Department of Pathology in the School of Medicine at the University of Sao Paulo.

“Dietary choices are a powerful way in helping maintain a healthy brain function, and it’s never too late to make healthy changes” Goncalves said.

“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,” she said.

“This does not mean that [even] older adults will not see results if they adopt a healthier lifestyle,” Goncalves added, because “research has shown over and over again that we benefit from healthier choices at any age.”

For the study, the researchers collected data on nearly 11,000 men and women, with a mean age of 52, who took part in the Brazilian Longitudinal Study of Adult Health.

During a median follow-up of eight years, participants who ate more than 20% of daily calories from ultra-processed foods had a 28% faster decline in global cognition and a 25% faster decline in executive function, Goncalves said. This association was stronger for adults aged 35 to 59, compared with adults older than 59, she said.

“Executive function is related to our ability to plan and execute goals, and global cognition is the combination of all cognitive domains we tested, including the executive function, verbal fluency and memory. Therefore, the decline we found in cognitive function is something that could interfere with our daily tasks,” Goncalves said.

Based on these findings, doctors & health care practitioners might counsel patients to cook at home using fresh ingredients, instead of buying ready-made meals and snacks, Goncalves said.

More studies are required to confirm whether a high intake of ultra-processed foods really directly harms the brain.

When people eat ultra-processed foods on a regular basis, they are unlikely to get the fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that their bodies need to be healthy, fight disease and reduce inflammation, she said.

“Ultimately, this can affect how well our brains work because they need a steady supply of these macro- and micronutrients to function properly. We can’t mentally muscle our way through poor nutrition,” Heller explained.

In Summary

“Ultra-processed foods are designed to fire up cravings and desire for these foods, and advertising which is everywhere reinforces those urges,” Heller said. “It is not the fault of the consumer that they long for ultra-processed foods. But it is up to us to recognise the manipulation by food companies and to take control of what we choose to eat.”


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