The Hazards of Ultra-processed Foods: Impact on Brain Health and Cognitive Decline

Did you know that a significant portion of the calories we consume in America comes from highly processed foods? These foods often contain ingredients that our bodies don’t even recognize as real food. It’s quite alarming how prevalent these ultra-processed foods have become. In fact, it’s estimated that around 70% of packaged foods fall into this category.

To identify ultra-processed foods, all you need to do is read the label. If you come across an ingredient that you don’t recognize or wouldn’t typically find in your grandmother’s pantry, chances are it’s an ultra-processed ingredient.

We’re already familiar with the physical health risks associated with these foods, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and even an increased risk of breast cancer. However, recent research is shedding light on the impact of ultra-processed foods on our brain health.

A study conducted not too long ago revealed a strong link between high consumption of ultra-processed foods and depression and anxiety. It seems that the more ultra-processed foods a person consumes, the greater their chances of experiencing these mental health issues.

Now, there’s even more evidence suggesting that ultra-processed foods are associated with cognitive decline. A long-term study followed 11,000 adults between the ages of 35 and 74. The researchers discovered that individuals who had a higher intake of ultra-processed foods were more likely to experience cognitive decline, particularly in executive function.

Most of the research in this field has focused on the negative impact of ultra-processed diets on gut health. Chemical additives in these foods can disrupt the balance of our gut flora, and these diets are typically low in fiber, which is essential for the production of short-chain fatty acids crucial for brain function. Moreover, new studies are revealing connections between artificial sweeteners and emulsifiers and dysfunctional gut microbiomes. Alongside the research linking sugar consumption to chronic inflammation, (the leading cause of depression),  it’s becoming increasingly clear just how hazardous diets composed of ultra-processed foods can be.

By paying closer attention to the quality of the foods we consume and opting for whole, minimally processed options, we can take a proactive approach towards safeguarding our brain health and overall well-being.


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PMID  Nov:25(11): 3225-2324 doi: 10.1017/S1368980022001586.