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How Ultra-Processed Food is Poisoning Our Brains

Updated: May 30

The science that we all must know


By Austin Perlmutter, MD



 

 

In the United States and around the world, we’ve largely replaced food with “food.” The basic elements of diet have been substituted for highly processed alternatives, and the results have been catastrophic to our health. Right now, up to 60% of American calories come from ultra-processed foods, a number that increases to 70% in kids and teenagers. Ultra-processed foods (think foods that you couldn’t make in your kitchen) have been linked to weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and everything in between. But they’re especially problematic for the brain. In this article, we’re exploring the negative effect of ultra-processed foods our brains and why it’s essential we all make changes to decrease their consumption today.  


What is an ultra-processed food?


Ultra-processed foods are industrially manufactured products made primarily from substances extracted from foods or synthesized in laboratories. These foods typically contain minimal whole food content and are designed for convenience, taste, and shelf-life. Some great examples include sweetened beverages, packaged snack foods, fast foods, pre-packaged meals, candy, chips, breads, other packaged pastries and cereals. Characteristics of ultra-processed foods include:


  1. High Levels of Additives: These include preservatives, sweeteners, colorings, flavorings, emulsifiers, and other artificial ingredients.

  2. Refined Ingredients: They often contain refined sugars, oils, fats, and flours.

  3. Low Nutritional Value: They usually lack essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber while being high in calories, sugars, unhealthy fats, and salt.

  4. Highly Palatable: Engineered to be extremely appealing and easy to overconsume due to their texture, flavor, and aroma.

  5. Minimal Whole Food Content: The original food elements are often reduced to their basic components and reassembled into new forms.


Ultra-processed foods increase risk for dementia.


Dementia is among the most feared diseases for good reason. But far too few people understand the power of dementia prevention that comes from changing diet. In a study published in 2024 in the Journal of Neurology, an analysis of around 870,000 people looked at the correlation between consumption of ultra-processed foods and dementia. The researchers found a stunning 44% increased risk of dementia in those consuming the highest amount of ultra-processed foods. This follows a paper published in the journal Neurology which in addition to showing the same link found that replacing 10% of ultra-processed foods with minimally processed foods was linked to a 19% reduction in risk for dementia.


Ultra-processed foods increase risk for mental health disorders


Mental health issues affect hundreds of millions of people and dramatically decrease quality of life. General conversations around mental health promote pharmaceuticals and psychotherapy, but diet is often ignored. Yet compelling research shows that diet quality impacts mental health. In a 2022 systematic review in Nutrients, researchers found hthat higher consumption of ultra-processed foods correlated with a 44% increased risk for depressive symptoms and a 48% increased risk for anxiety symptoms. A large study of over 260,000 people from Nutritional Neuroscience in 2022 found similar findings for depression (but not for anxiety). Interestingly, other research suggests that the key link here may be the production of inflammation from ultra-processed foods.


Ultra-processed foods increase stroke risk

Cardiovascular events including stroke are a massive global health issue and are the top causes of death worldwide. In a recent massive review of over 63 million people, it was found that a diet rich in processed foods was linked to a higher risk for cardiovascular events. A new paper published in the journal Stroke, found that higher intake of processed foods increased risk of stroke by 10%, while eating real, minimally processed foods like the Mediterranean diet was linked to a 13% decrease in risk.



Check out my interview with Dr. Mark Hyman on this topic HERE


 

Ultra-processed food may increase children’s behavioral and cognitive issues.

A recent study in The Journal of Affective Disorders found that an ultra-processed diet rich in refined sugar and saturated fat increases risk for ADHD by 41%, while a minimally processed diet rich in fruits and vegetables decreased risk by 35%. New research also proposes that a mother’s diet while pregnant may impact her child’s risk of brain issues including cognitive issues and ADHD symptoms. In particular, an ultra-processed diet increases risk while a mother’s consumption of a Mediterranean pattern diet might enhance a child’s brain function.






All of this research converges on a central theme: ultra-processed foods are toxic to the brain and replacing them with real foods protects and enhances our brain function. To this end, here are 12 great ways to enhance your diet quality by phasing out ultra-processed foods:


  1. Cook at Home: When possible, prepare meals using fresh ingredients to control what goes into your food.

  2. Choose Whole Grains: If you choose to eat grains, opt for whole grains like brown rice and quinoa instead of white flour and white rice.

  3. Eat Fresh Fruits and Vegetables: Incorporate a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet. They are rich in essential nutrients and fiber.

  4. Snack on Nuts and Seeds: Replace packaged snacks with raw or lightly roasted nuts and seeds (add in some blueberries for a sweeter counterpoint!)

  5. Drink Water or Herbal Teas: Replace sugary drinks and sodas with water, herbal teas, or homemade fruit-infused water.

  6. Skip anything with added sugar or sweetener

  7. Make Your Own Sauces and Dressings: Prepare homemade sauces and salad dressings using fresh ingredients instead of store-bought versions (store-bought and restaurant versions are especially rich in added sugars)

  8. Read Labels: When buying packaged foods, read labels carefully to choose products with fewer ingredients and no artificial additives.

  9. Use Healthy Fats: Cook with healthy fats like olive oil and avocado oil instead of hydrogenated oils and margarine.

  10. Fermented Foods: Include fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi for their probiotic benefits.

  11. Plan Meals: Plan your meals and snacks to avoid the temptation of convenient ultra-processed foods.

 





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