They’re tasty, convenient, quick to prepare, and cheap. We’re talking about a category of food items referred to as “ultraprocessed,” the kind young people (and some not-so-young) love to grab for a quick meal or snack. Well over half the calories consumed here in the U.S. come from ultraprocessed foods, and no wonder: thanks to a multi-billion-dollar marketing machine, loyalty to these food brands is stamped into our minds at an early age. There’s a lot of profit to be made selling food that’s bad for us.
In spite of their popularity, ultraprocessed foods are indeed bad for our health – just about everybody understands that (albeit reluctantly). But as this recent CNN article reports, there’s a lot more at stake in eating these foods than our waistlines or our blood pressure. A recently reported study out of Brazil has presented what seems to be a definitive correlation between how much ultraprocessed food we eat and how much cognitive decline we experience. This is one of those stories that should cause us to stop and think about the hidden cost of quick-and-easy food.
Steady Diet of Ultraprocessed Foods Linked to Cognitive Decline
The CNN article begins, “We all know eating ultraprocessed foods that make our lives easier –such as prepackaged soups, sauces, frozen pizza and ready-to-eat meals – isn’t good for our health. Nor is gobbling up all the pleasure foods that we love so much: hot dogs, sausages, burgers, french fries, sodas, cookies, cakes, candies, doughnuts and ice cream, to name just a few.”
And if we know anything about the health consequences of eating those foods regularly, we probably also know about the studies that have linked those foods to risk of obesity, heart problems, diabetes, cancer, and a shortened life expectancy overall.
But as if those warnings weren’t enough, here’s another worry for fans of quick and convenient foods. “Now,” the article states, “a new study has revealed eating more ultraprocessed foods may contribute to overall cognitive decline, including the areas of the brain involved in executive functioning – the ability to process information and make decisions.”
“Compelling Results” Show Faster Rate of Decline
The numbers are pretty scary, says CNN. Individuals—men and women—who ate the most ultraprocessed foods had a 28 percent faster cognitive decline and a 25 percent faster executive function decline compared to those who didn’t, according to the study.
Rudy Tanzi, Harvard Medical School professor of neurology (not involved with the study), said, “While in need of further study and replication, the new results are quite compelling and emphasize the critical role for proper nutrition in preserving and promoting brain health and reducing risk for brain diseases as we get older.”
Systemic Inflammation Triggered by Sugar, Salt, Fat
According to Tanzi, who has also written extensively about the dangers of ultraprocessed foods, “[these foods] are usually very high in sugar, salt and fat, all of which promote systemic inflammation, perhaps the most major threat to healthy aging in the body and brain.”
“Meanwhile,” he adds, “since they are convenient as a quick meal, they also replace eating food that is high in plant fiber that is important for maintaining the health and balance of the trillions of bacteria in your gut microbiome, which is particularly important for brain health and reducing risk of age-related brain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.”
10,000 Brazilian Adults Studied for a Decade
The extensive study followed 10,000 Brazilians over the course of ten years. Just over half of the participants were women, white, or college-educated, and the average age was 51. “Cognitive testing, which included immediate and delayed word recall, word recognition and verbal fluency were performed at the beginning and end of the study, and participants were asked about their diet,” the article explains.
Study co-author Dr. Claudia Suemoto said, “In Brazil, ultraprocessed foods make up 25 percent to 30 percent of total calorie intake. We have McDonald’s, Burger King and we eat a lot of chocolate and white bread. It’s not very different, unfortunately, from many other Western countries.”
Ironically, Brazilians actually seem to eat better than we do. Dr. Suemoto added, “Fifty-eight percent of the calories consumed by United States citizens, 56.8 percent of the calories consumed by British citizens, and 48 percent of the calories consumed by Canadians come from ultraprocessed foods.”
“Ultraprocessed” Means “Industrial Food Substances”
As CNN reports, the study defines ultraprocessed foods as “industrial formulations of food substances (oils, fats, sugars, starch, and protein isolates) that contain little or no whole foods and typically include flavorings, colorings, emulsifiers, and other cosmetic additives.” (Sounds delicious, right?)
Another study coauthor, researcher Natalia Gonçalves, explained, “People who consumed more than 20 percent of daily calories from processed foods had a 28 percent faster decline in global cognition and a 25 percent faster decline in executive functioning compared to people who ate less than 20 percent.”
To clarify the math and make it easier to visualize, the article adds, “For a person who eats 2,000 calories a day, 20 percent would equal 400 or more calories — for comparison, a small order of fries and regular cheeseburger from McDonalds contains a total of 530 calories.” For a person on a 3,000 calorie per day diet, it wouldn’t be hard to generate half those calories – 1,500 or so – from burgers, fries, shakes and frozen snacks.
Younger Women Eat More Ultraprocessed Foods
In the end, the study concluded that the individuals who eat the most ultraprocessed foods are “more likely to be younger, women, White, had higher education and income, and were more likely to have never smoked, and less likely to be current alcohol consumers.” We suspect these subjects choose ultraprocessed foods because they’re quick and easy to prepare. But that’s the problem: people choose convenience over good health.
Suemoto for one hopes that this study will help people to change their habits, and hopefully cook more real food at home.
“People need to know they should cook more and prepare their own food from scratch. I know. We say we don’t have time but it really doesn’t take that much time,” she said. “And it’s worth it because you’re going to protect your heart and guard your brain from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. That’s the take-home message: Stop buying things that are superprocessed.” Your body will thank you – and, as it turns out, so will your brain.
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(originally reported at www.cnn.com)