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Ultra-Processed Foods Could Be Harming Your Brain
  • Posted May 23, 2024

Ultra-Processed Foods Could Be Harming Your Brain

Ultra-processed foods are bad for more than your waistline: New research shows they seem to raise the risk of stroke and dementia-related memory or thinking problems.

A 10% increase in the amount of ultra-processed foods a person eats is associated with a 16% higher risk of cognitive problems, researchers found.

Likewise, greater intake of ultra-processed foods is linked to an 8% increased risk of stroke, results show.

“Our findings show that the degree of food processing plays an important role in overall brain health,” said researcher Dr. W. Taylor Kimberly, a critical care neurologist with Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Ultra-processed foods typically are factory-made fare containing high levels of sugar, fat and salt. They're a patchwork of ingredients, additives and preservatives engineered for flavor and shelf-life.

Examples include chicken nuggets, frozen meals, hot dogs, canned soups, potato chips, soft drinks, sugary breakfast cereals, ice cream, packaged breads, and condiments like ketchup and mayonnaise.

Ultra-processed foods already have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, obesity  and type 2 diabetes, the Cleveland Clinic says.

For this study, published May 22 in the journal Neurology, researchers compared intake of ultra-processed foods to that of unprocessed or minimally processed foods like vegetables, fruits and simple cuts of beef, pork and chicken.

“While a healthy diet is important in maintaining brain health among older adults, the most important dietary choices for your brain remain unclear,” Kimberly said.

Researchers recruited more than 30,000 white or Black people ages 45 or older, and had them fill out questionnaires about what they typically eat or drink.

Researchers used the responses to calculate how much ultra-processed foods were in each person's daily diet, compared to healthier options.

About 14,000 participants were then tracked over an average 11 years for cognitive decline, and more than 20,000 for stroke.

“We found that increased consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a higher risk of both stroke and cognitive impairment,” Kimberly said in a journal news release.

On the other hand, eating unprocessed or minimally processed foods was linked with a 12% lower risk of brain problems and a 9% decreased risk of stroke.

Ultra-processed foods had an even greater effect on Black participants, increasing their risk of stroke by 15%.

“More research is needed to confirm these results and to better understand which food or processing components contribute most to these effects,” Kimberly said.

More information

The Cleveland Clinic has more on ultra-processed foods.

SOURCE: American Academy of Neurology, news release, May 22, 2024

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