Does Your Diet Increase Your Risk of Dementia?

Does Your Diet Increase Your Risk of Dementia?

Does anything smell better than hot dogs and burgers on the grill? Does your mouth water when you hear the tumble of ice into a cup, knowing that a refreshing sip of soda is going to follow? Do you stick to your healthy diet until the moment you spy a box of yummy donuts? From stealing the grandkids’ Halloween candy to dishing up ice cream for a night in front of the television, some foods become our major weaknesses. Sure, you know they’re bad for you… but do you ever feel like you’ve simply earned the right to eat whatever you want to?

These “junk foods” are commonly known as ultra processed foods, and for many of us, they make up a regular part of our daily diet. To understand exactly what is meant by “ultra processed,” we turned to Harvard Health Publishing to break down the definitions:

·        Unprocessed foods are those that are haven’t been altered in any way before they hit your plate. Imagine pulling a tomato off the vine and eating it right there in the garden. Or picture biting into a sun-warmed apple straight from the tree. That’s an unprocessed food.

·        If you remove an inedible part of a food or alter its shape, such as cutting up a watermelon, you now have something that is “minimally” processed. These foods also include those that need to be cooked to be safe, such as raw chicken. These foods tend to retain all of their nutrients.

·        Processed foods are those that have been changed by adding salt, oil, or other substances. These foods usually have two or three ingredients. For instance, canned vegetables are a processed food, in that they are usually just vegetables in a simple brine of water and salt. Processed foods can still be very good for you.

·        Ultra processed foods, also known as highly processed, are those that have been heavily modified from their original state. These aren’t necessarily made from the foods themselves but are made from the ingredients extracted from the foods, such as fats and starches. There are other ingredients added in, such as sugars, artificial flavorings, colorants, and stabilizers to keep the food “fresh” on the shelf. These are the foods that can feel addictive – sodas, packaged cookies, fast food meals, salty snacks, and hot dogs, to name a few.[1]

Any dietitian will tell you that unprocessed and minimally processed foods are best. Processed foods can be quite healthy for you as well, as long as you pay attention to the ingredients to make sure they are as simple as possible. A good rule of thumb is to never eat anything that has an ingredient you can’t pronounce.

But ultra processed foods taste so delicious, don’t they? It can be very difficult to turn them down. And you don’t necessarily have to cut them out of your diet, but you should look to consume them only in moderation. Studies have long shown that ultra processed foods do all sorts of negative things to the body, but now we know that they can do some serious damage to your brain, too.

What Ultra Processed Foods Do to the Brain

A recent study published in JAMA Neurology focused on almost 11,000 Brazilians over an 8-year period.[2] Just over half of the test subjects were college-educated women. The average age of the test subjects was 51. The study looked at their diet throughout that time and measured their cognitive ability at the beginning and at the end of the study. Those cognitive tests included word recognition, verbal fluency, and immediate and delayed word recall.

The study showed a remarkable finding: those who ate ultra processed foods for more than 20% of their caloric intake each day showed a significant decrease in cognitive functioning.

When the study compared those who ate the most ultra processed foods with those who ate the least, the results were clear: those who indulged in ultra processed foods most often saw their overall cognitive function decline at a 28% faster rate than those who ate more unprocessed foods, and saw their rate of executive function decline 25% faster.

To be clear about what parts of the diet the scientists were looking at, the study defined ultra processed 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.”

This study leaves little doubt that ultra processed foods can have a negative effect on the brain.

Since it can be impossible to sense when things in your brain are slowly changing, it’s a great idea to have a safety net as you get older. A medical alert necklace or bracelet can be a great way to keep peace of mind as you age. If you ever suffer an accident, fall, or other serious emergency, you can press the button to get the assistance you need right away.

How Ultra Processed Foods Affect Your Body

Many studies have proven that what you put into your body can have long-term effects. Ultra processed foods contribute to the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, circulation problems, and much more.[3] The American Cancer Association points out that sugar-sweetened beverages and highly processed foods can increase the risk of developing cancers of all kinds.[4]

Eating these foods can also lead to a shorter life span. In fact, research has found that a diet that consists of 10% caloric intake of ultra processed foods can increase your risk of death from all causes by 14%![5]

The way these foods affect the body can spill over into how they affect the brain. For instance, ultra processed foods make heavy use of sugar, salt, and fat. All three of those can increase inflammation in the body, and that inflammation affects everything from your joints to your blood vessels to your brain.

In addition, the more ultra processed foods you eat, the less high-fiber foods you’re eating. That upsets the balance of your good gut bacteria. And that gut biome is a strong helper in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s.

When it comes to what those ultra processed foods do to your body and your brain, that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

It’s important to remember that these physical consequences of eating ultra processed foods can come on gradually or quickly. For instance, Type 2 diabetes develops over time. But a heart attack can seemingly come out of nowhere. To protect yourself from the things you can’t possibly see coming, a medical alert system is a great option. A panic button alarm allows you to reach out for help right away. If you start to feel chest pain, have shortness of breath, or otherwise suffer symptoms that cause concern, use the senior life-saving alert system to get help.

The Challenge of Avoiding Ultra Processed Foods

The answer to this problem seems pretty easy, right? Just eat less ultra processed foods and more of the unprocessed or minimally processed ones. But you probably don’t realize just how many of these foods have crept into your day-to-day life until you try to cut them out completely.

Dr. Claudia Suemoto, a coauthor of the study, pointed out that while it was unsurprising to learn that the Brazilians in the study had 20% or more daily caloric intake of ultra processed foods, the problem is even greater in other countries. “In Brazil, ultra processed foods make up 25% to 30% of total caloric intake,” Suemoto said.

But she also pointed out that Canadians take in 48% of their calories from ultra processed foods, the British get almost 57% of their diet from those foods, and Americans tend to consume ultra processed foods for 58% of their total caloric intake.

In other words, unprocessed foods are the exception rather than the rule in the American diet.

Can You Incorporate Ultra Processed Foods Into a Healthy Diet?

In short: yes. As with many other things in life, it comes down to a question of balance and moderation.

Remember, the study found that if 20% of your daily calories come from ultra processed foods, you might have a higher risk of cognitive decline. And it’s obvious that ultra processed foods can wreak havoc on your body. But just as you might drink alcohol in moderation, enjoy the indulgence, and not compromise your health by having an occasional glass of wine, it’s okay to have a hot dog fresh off the grill every once in a while.

It’s especially okay if you have a diet that is otherwise very healthy. In a surprising twist, the study found that if a person’s overall diet is loaded with whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and good sources of protein, the healthy diet actually cancelled out the damage done by the occasional ultra processed meal.

To figure out where to begin cutting down on the processed stuff, look closely at the calories they bring to your diet. For instance, a 2,000 calorie daily diet should be made up of less than 400 calories of these foods. But again, remember the idea of balance. While you might have a fast food meal that tops 700 calories or more in one day, not having any other ultra processed foods that week still leaves you with far less than 20% of your diet, overall, made up of the foods you’re trying to avoid. You’re still indulging in something delicious, but it’s in moderation.

If you find that the majority of your diet is filled with ultra processed foods, slowly cutting back on them can help you shape a healthier diet. For instance, consider having oatmeal or fruit in the morning instead of stopping by a fast food place for a breakfast sandwich. Load up on sautéed vegetables with dinner instead of having a side of chips.

You don’t have to change your habits overnight, but you can slowly adjust your diet to bring down the percentage of ultra processed foods. 

Another good way to avoid ultra processed foods is to cook your own food at home. Start with simple, raw ingredients. You can control everything you add to the food, such as seasonings. By making it yourself, you can be rest assured that what lands on your plate has nothing hidden or added.

When you’re making any changes to your diet, be alert to how your body adjusts to the new way of eating. Giving up something like soda might be difficult to do, especially since it can have physical effects, like withdrawal from the caffeine and sugar you were accustomed to drinking.

In the quest for better cognitive function, cut out those ultra processed foods for a healthier body and brain. As your body changes and your diet becomes healthier, using a personal emergency response system can give you strong peace of mind. If you feel weak, faint, or unwell, you can always know that pressing the button on a medical alert pendant can get you the help you need right away. Alert1 wishes you an abundance of good health!