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You know that fast-food value meal is loaded with sugar, fat and salt, not to mention additives and preservatives you can’t even pronounce.
But it’s late. You’ve had a busy day, and you’re too tired to cook. And that burger, fries and soda combo is quick, easy and tasty. So you hit the drive-thru and promise yourself you’ll do better tomorrow.
Sound familiar? You’re not alone.
More than a third of Americans, or about 84.8 million, eat fast food on any given day. And while that percentage does decrease with age, nearly a quarter of adults age 60 and older are still consuming fast food on a given day.
And this addiction to convenience doesn’t stop at the drive-thru. Many Americans have pantries and refrigerators at home that are bursting with ultra-processed foods high in added sugar, fat and salt and low in protein and fiber.
Some of these ultra-processed foods, like soft drinks, salty and sugary snacks, ice cream, sausage, ketchup, mayonnaise, deep-fried chicken and flavored cereals, are clearly bad for you. But even items like yogurt, canned baked beans and tomatoes, packaged guacamole, hummus and bread aren’t as benign as they appear because of the processing they’re subjected to.
For the past several years, scientists have been examining the health impact of these ultra-processed foods. So far, studies have linked a diet that’s heavy in ultra-processed foods with insulin resistance, obesity and cellular damage.
And consuming ultra-processed foods may not be good for your brain, either. A team of Chinese researchers recently examined data from the UK Biobank health information database to determine whether eating ultra-processed foods could lead to dementia. And what they found is alarming…
Ultra-processed foods on the brain
The researchers selected 72,083 people from the UK Biobank for their study. Participants were aged 55 and older and had no dementia at the beginning of the study, which followed them for an average of 10 years. By study’s end, 518 of the participants had been diagnosed with dementia.
During the study, participants filled out at least two questionnaires recording the food and drink they had consumed the previous day. The researchers identified how much of that food and drink was ultra-processed by calculating the grams per day. Then, they compared that measurement to the grams per day of other foods to determine what percentage of each participant’s diet was made up of ultra-processed items.
Once that percentage was calculated, participants were divided into four equal groups ranging from the lowest percentage of ultra-processed foods to the highest. Ultra-processed foods made up an average of 9 percent of the daily diet of people in the lowest group, or an average of 225 grams a day. In the highest group, the average daily percentage of ultra-processed foods was 28 percent, or an average of 814 grams per day.
For comparison, one serving of items like pizza or fish sticks equaled 150 grams.
The main food group contributing to high ultra-processed food intake was beverages, followed by sugary products and ultra-processed dairy.
In the lowest-consumption group, 105 of the 18,021 people developed dementia, compared to 150 of the 18,021 people in the highest-consumption group.
The research team adjusted for age, gender, family history of dementia and heart disease and other factors that could affect risk of dementia. After taking all that into account, they found that for every 10 percent increase in daily consumption of ultra-processed foods, people had a 25 percent increase in dementia risk.
The researchers also used study data to project what would happen if a person swapped 10 percent of the ultra-processed foods they consumed with unprocessed or minimally processed foods like fresh fruit, vegetables, legumes, milk and meat. According to their findings, this substitution was associated with a 19 percent reduction in dementia risk.
Study author Dr. Huiping Li of Tianjin Medical University in China says results also indicate that substituting 50 grams of ultra-processed foods for 50 grams of unprocessed or minimally processed foods can lower dementia risk by 3 percent. For instance, an individual could swap out a chocolate bar for half an apple, or a couple of fish sticks for a bowl of bran cereal.
“It’s encouraging to know that small and manageable changes in diet may make a difference in a person’s risk of dementia,” Li says.
It’s important to note the study didn’t prove that ultra-processed foods cause dementia; it only shows an association. Further research is needed to confirm the findings.
Li also observes that in addition to added fat, salt and sugar, ultra-processed foods may contain food additives or molecules from packaging or that are produced during heating. These additives and molecules have been shown in other studies to have negative effects on thinking and memory skills, he says.
What exactly qualifies as “ultra-processed”?
If you’re like me, you may be confused by the inclusion of seemingly healthy products like hummus, canned tomatoes, avocado-rich guacamole and yogurt in the “ultra-processed” category (except we know that the addition of lots of sugar or salt is problematic). That’s because nutrition science is still figuring all this out.
Dr. Maura Walker of Boston University notes that nutrition research now faces the challenge of categorizing foods as unprocessed, minimally processed, processed and ultra-processed. “For example, foods like soup would be classified differently if canned versus homemade,” she says.
“Plus, the level of processing is not always aligned with diet quality,” Walker adds. “Plant-based burgers that qualify as high quality may also be ultra-processed. As we aim to understand better the complexities of dietary intake, we must also consider that more high-quality dietary assessments may be required.”
Until then, the best rule of thumb is to include as many whole foods as possible. That means consuming foods that look like the real thing, versus a stick of fish — foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, beans and legumes, fresh meat, poultry, fish and dairy. Following an eating plan like the Mediterranean diet is a great way to ensure your diet consists mostly of whole, unprocessed or minimally processed foods.
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Eating More Ultra-Processed Foods Associated With Increased Risk Of Dementia — American Academy of Neurology
Fast Food Statistics — The Barbecue Lab