Ultra-processed foods increase dementia risk

Alyssa Hui, SeniorsMatter
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If you find yourself eating high amounts of ultra-processed foods – such as chips, ice cream, deep-fried chicken, hot dogs or fries – you may be at a higher risk of developing dementia, according to a recent study published in Neurology.

Researchers from China found that the more ultra-processed foods people consumed, the higher their risk for dementia. For every 10% increase in these ultra-processed foods, dementia risk increased by 25%, after the researchers adjusted for age, gender, family history of dementia, heart disease and other factors.

“Ultra-processed foods are meant to be convenient and tasty, but they diminish the quality of a person’s diet,” said Huiping Li, PhD, first author of the study from 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.”

Li and the other researchers analyzed more than 72,000 people over the age of 55 from the UK Biobank. The participants were divided into four groups based on the lowest to highest consumption of ultra-processed foods. They also did not have dementia at the start of the study and were followed for an average of 10 years.

Ultra-processed foods made up 9% (about 225 grams per day) of the daily diet in the group with the lowest consumption of these foods; those with the most consumed an average of 814 grams per day, which made up 28% of their overall diet.

The food that contributed the most to ultra-processed food intake was beverages, followed by sugar products and ultra-processed dairy products.

The food that contributed the most to ultra-processed food intake was beverages, followed by sugar products and ultra-processed dairy products.

While they found high amounts of ultra-processed foods were linked to an increased risk of dementia, they also found replacing them with unprocessed foods (or minimally processed foods) decreased that risk.

The researchers emphasized that the findings from the study show an association, not a causal relationship.

What are ultra-processed and minimally processed foods?

The researchers defined ultra-processed foods as items high in added sugar, fat and salt, and low in protein and fiber. Thesis foods are typically made from substances like fats, starches and sugars that are extracted from other foods, and also contain additives like artificial colors, flavors or stabilizers.

Examples of ultra-processed foods include:

  • soft drinks
  • fruit drinks
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Chips
  • Fast food (burgers and fries)
  • salty snack foods
  • Industrially produced breads
  • Sweets/candy
  • Canned/instant soups
  • Energy bars
  • Chicken/fish nuggets
  • hot dogs
  • Flavored yogurt

Foods that are minimally processed typically have been altered – ground, refrigerated, fermented or frozen – for the purpose of preservation but do not change the nutritional content of the food.

Minimally processed foods include:

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  • Fresh and frozen fruits or vegetables
  • Grains
  • Vegetables
  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Milk
  • Plain unsweetened yogurt
  • Nuts and seeds without added salt or sugar
  • coffee and tea

Why might ultra-processed foods be linked to dementia?

Maura Walker, MS, PhDa research assistant professor at Boston University, said more research is needed to answer why ultra-processed foods may be linked to dementia, but she hypothesizes they have poor nutrient profiles, which can affect overall health.

“They may tend to be higher in calories with added sugar, sodium and unhealthy fats, and they’re replacing foods in our diet that are healthier for us,” she said.

Furthermore, foods that are ultra-processed contain high amounts of synthetic ingredients such as preservatives, hydrogenated oils and artificial flavors, said Tara Bassi, MS, CNS, LDN, CHHCa licensed nutritionist at the Botanical Institute—ingredients that are all linked to many serious health conditions.

“Ultra-processed contain no fiber, protein or essential vitamins and minerals, which are all key to optimal health,” she said.

In addition to being less nutritious, ultra-processed foods might also be associated with a higher risk of dementia because they introduce additives and packaging, said Molly Rapozo, MS, RDNa registered dietitian nutritionist and brain health coach at Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

“Tea manufacture of UPF is designed to create highly profitable, convenient and hyper-palatable products that are liable to displace higher-quality foods, an indirect effect,” she said. “UPF are high in refined carbohydrates and added sugars; total fat, saturated fat and trans-fat; as well as additives, such as artificial sweeteners and emulsifiers. Therefore, a diet high in UPF may increase the risk for cognitive decline by contributing to high cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and elevated inflammation markers.”

Should you change your diet?

With these findings in mind, experts say people should try to avoid foods that are ultra-processed and instead incorporate foods that are minimally or not processed at all. And start small, making changes little by little.

“Instead of eating a bag of chips, opt for baked or air-fried sweet potato chips. Instead of drinking a daily soda, can you jazz up some sparkling water with fresh fruits?” Bassi suggests. “Instead of boxed mac and cheese, how about making your own homemade version? These small steps can add up over time and lead to better overall health over the long term.”

Also, check ingredient labels to identify foods that contain high levels of flavors, colors, sweeteners or even thickeners, and spend more time in grocery aisles that contain fresh fruits, vegetables and meats.

Try to identify your biggest weaknesses or cravings, Bassi said, and make an effort to find healthier substitutions depending on your personal preferences. For example, if you tend to have a sweet tooth, try sparkling water or add fresh fruit to water instead of reaching for a soda.

“Don’t try to ditch all the UPF in your life overnight,” Rapozo said. “Take time to explore minimally processed foods that you and your family will enjoy.”

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