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Why ultra-processed foods are bad for your brain

Why ultra-processed foods are bad for your brain


Ultra-processed foods are quick, convenient and hard to avoid, but there is growing evidence that eating them can affect brain health and lead to cognitive decline and stroke.

A new study published in the journal Neurology found that eating just 10% more ultra-processed food was associated with a 9% increased risk of stroke and a 12% increased risk of cognitive impairment, and another study earlier this month found that people who ate an average of seven servings of ultra-processed food a day were at higher risk of death.

“We're really starting to see the downside of these foods, which is that they come with a cost,” Dr. W. Taylor Kimberly told CTV National News. “We need to think, individually and collectively, about what that cost is and how we address that.”

Kimberly and his research team surveyed 30,000 participants in the United States for the study and found that ultra-processed foods likely affect our brains in two ways.

One is direct, through the way our gut breaks down ultra-processed foods, and the other is that people who eat a lot of ultra-processed foods are at higher risk of heart disease, obesity, and other things, which also affect the brain.

Foods are considered ultra-processed when they go through multiple steps of processing. For example, tomatoes from the tree are considered a “whole food” and diced tomatoes in a can are considered a “processed food,” but when salt, sugar and chemicals are added to turn the tomatoes into soup, they become an “ultra-processed food.”

“During processing, nutrients are often removed and others, like salt and sugar, are added,” says Amanda Nash, a registered dietitian at the Heart & Stroke Foundation. “The key is that it's convenient, ready to eat, ready to drink and ready to heat.”

These are the kinds of foods Sandra Elia eats to comfort herself.

“In my 20s, I was diagnosed with severe obesity and was eating mostly ultra-processed foods,” she says.

Elia now works as a food addiction counsellor, helping people to balance their diet. She says reading packaging and understanding the ingredients is key, and it's also important to eat for your health, not just your waistline.

“This is about eating whole, natural foods to protect cognitive performance and brain health,” she says.

The study found that adding even small amounts of ultra-processed foods to your diet can affect your brain health, but the lead researcher said you could reduce the risk by cutting out small amounts.

“Even making small changes like substituting pre-made meals for just a week will make a measurable difference,” Kimberly says.

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Experts also say that processed and ultra-processed foods are not all the same, and there is a spectrum when considering what to eat. For example, oatmeal and rolled oats are better than bran cereal, which in turn is better than sugary breakfast cereal. Consumers should look for packaged foods with minimal ingredients, and products that contain ingredients such as maltodextrin, soy lecithin, and locust bean gum are more likely to be ultra-processed, experts say.

Eliminating all ultra-processed foods from your diet can be difficult and expensive, but making changes early on can have long-term effects.

“What our research suggests is that the earlier in life you can start exercising and the longer you can maintain it, the better off you are,” Kimberly said.




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