Cut Back on Ultra-Processed Foods to Reduce Dementia Risk

Harvard Medical School has shared the results of an observational study that reveals eliminating (or at least significantly reducing) ultra-processed food from your diet can reduce the risk of dementia. The results of the study itself were released in July 2022 in Neurology. In this article, we present you with an overview of the research study and examine how you can reduce your own dementia risk by cutting back on or eliminating altogether what are known as ultra-processed foods.

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?

The term ultra-processed foods may be new to you. If you are like most people, you have heard of processed foods and think of things like bologna. In recent years, dieticians and health experts have developed the classification of ultra-processed food. According to Harvard Medical School:

Ultra-processed foods have many added ingredients such as:

  • Refined white sugar
  • Salt
  • Fat
  • Artificial colors
  • Artificial preservatives

Ultra-processed foods are made mostly from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats. They may also contain additives like artificial colors and flavors or stabilizers. Examples of these foods are:

  • Frozen meals
  • Soft drinks
  • Hot dogs
  • Cold cuts
  • Fast food
  • Packaged cookies
  • Packaged cakes
  • Salty snacks

Overview of Research Study on Ultra-Processed Foods and Dementia

In this study, researchers looked at the dietary habits of more than 72,000 people. These individuals were aged 55 and older. None of the research subjects had dementia at the start of the study. In an observational study, the 72,000 people in it were followed by researchers for an average of 10 years. At the conclusion of the study period, 518 participants had been diagnosed with dementia.

Based on the participant’s diet questionnaires, researchers observed a correlation between developing dementia and earlier intake of ultra-processed foods. Even after adjusting for other established risk factors, the researchers calculated a 25 percent higher risk for dementia in people eating the largest amounts of ultra-processed foods compared with those who ate little of them. The research study defined ultra-processed foods as those high in added sugar, fat, and salt, and low in protein and fiber. Examples include soft drinks, salty and sugary snacks, ice cream, sausage, deep-fried chicken, ketchup, and mayonnaise.

The investigators estimated that switching out 10 percent of ultra-processed foods with an equivalent proportion of unprocessed or minimally processed foods (fruits and vegetables, for example) could lower dementia risk by 19 percent. This type of observational study only shows an association between diet and dementia risk and does not mean that ultra-processed foods cause dementia.

Other Health Risks of Ultra-Processed Foods

An increased risk of dementia is not the only health risk of consuming ultra-processed foods. We present a selection of the other potential health risks associated with a diet heavy (no pun intended) in ultra-processed foods.

Increased cancer risk

A five-year study of over 100,000 people found that every 10 percent increase in consumption of ultra-processed food was associated with a 12 percent higher risk for cancer. This is considered a significant increase in cancer risk.

Too Much Sugar, Sodium, and Fat

Heavily processed foods often include unhealthy levels of added sugar, sodium, and fat. These ingredients make the food we eat taste better, but too much of them leads to serious health issues that include:

  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes.

Lack of nutritional value

Heavy processing strips many foods of their basic nutrients, which is why many foods today are fortified with fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Calorie Dense and Addicting

It is very easy to overindulge in unhealthy food and consume more calories than we realize. For example, an Oreo cookie contains about 50 calories, while an entire cup of green beans is only 44 calories. Processed foods like these are also designed to stimulate our brain’s so-called “feel-good” dopamine center. This makes us crave more of these types of foods in the future. The net effect fairly can be called “addicting.”

Quicker to Digest

Ultra-processed foods are easier to digest than unprocessed, whole foods. What this means is that our bodies burn less energy digesting them. In other words, our bodies burn fewer calories to digest ultra-processed foods. Researchers estimate we burn half as many calories digesting ultra-processed foods compared to unprocessed foods. This fact combined with the calorie density of processed foods in general can make it easy to pack on the pounds in what can prove to be a relatively short period of time.

Tips to Cut Back on Ultra-Processed Foods in Your Diet

There are some strategies that have proven themselves effective that can assist you in cutting back on the amount of ultra-processed foods you consume.

Check the Label on Food Items Before You Buy

The longer the ingredient list, the more processed food there will be in a particular item. If most of the ingredients are difficult to pronounce chemicals instead of actual food, it’s a safe bet that food is heavily processed and that an item is classified as ultra-processed food.

Shop the outside aisles at the grocery store

The center aisles of most grocery stores are full of packaged items and ready-made foods that are heavily processed. Aim to buy more foods from the produce and dairy aisles.

Select Minimally Processed Meats

Choose meats that have been minimally processed. These include such items as seafood and chicken breast. Avoid heavily processed meats. These include items that are likely favorites: bacon and sausage.

Start the process of eliminating ultra-processed foods slowly

It is definitely okay to slowly replace processed foods in your diet with more fresh foods. In fact, it may make you more likely to stick to these changes long-term. It’s a cliché, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. The same holds true for the development of your current eating habits and routines.

Cook More Meals at Home

You might not always be in control of your diet while traveling, but you are at home. Make your own frozen meals by cooking a larger batch and freezing the leftovers or whip up your own salad dressing. You might even find that you enjoy making your own meals.

Following the recommendations in this article can get you on a pathway to a better brain, heart, and overall health. You will put yourself in the position of lowering the risk of dementia and improving overall health and wellness.