Although many ultra-processed foods (sodas, candies, energy bars, fruit yogurts, frozen pizzas, and frozen meals) can satisfy cravings for sweet, fatty, and salty foods, new research suggests that these foods are particularly bad for you. the brain. mood and cognition take a hit.
Diets high in these foods were associated with a 44 percent higher risk of depression and a 48 percent higher risk of anxiety, according to a meta-analysis published in the journal. Nutrients. In one of these studies, risk increased by consuming just 33 percent of calories from ultra-processed foods. A separate study in Brazil of 10,775 people found that eating just 20 percent of calories from these foods was linked to a 28 percent faster rate of cognitive decline than people who ate fewer foods. transformed.
Particularly alarming: a study of around half a million people living in England, Scotland and Wales found that for every 10% increase in consumption of ultra-processed foods, the risk of dementia increased by 25%.
“While the exact cause-and-effect relationship is still unknown, the strongest observational evidence from prospective studies leans toward the idea that consuming large amounts of ultra-processed foods increases the risk of developing depression. in the future,” said the study’s lead researcher. Nutrients article, Melissa M. Lane, wrote in an email. She is a postdoctoral researcher at Deakin University School of Medicine, Geelong, Australia.
It is common knowledge that eating too much salt, sugar and/or saturated fat is linked to chronic inflammation, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. What the public may not understand, however, is that all of these conditions affect the brain by increasing the risk of vascular dementia, which is a decrease in blood flow to the brain. Additives such as certain artificial sweeteners and monosodium glutamate may also interfere with the production and release of brain chemicals such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which can harm mental and emotional well-being.
Another problem with ultra-processed foods is that they can be addictive. “Ultra-processed foods have more in common with a cigarette than with foods produced by Mother Nature,” says Ashley Gearhardt, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
This is intentional; “Multi-billion dollar corporations are creating these foods to hook us, so our agency in food matters is weak. I view this as a food sovereignty issue,” says Cindy Leung, assistant professor of public health nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health in Boston.
Humans have evolved to respond to sugary, fatty, and high-calorie foods. For most of human existence, it has helped us survive. But in nature, foods are only modestly high in sugar, like berries, or high in fat, like nuts.
“You don’t find foods high in sugar and fat,” says Gearhardt. “This is a characteristic of ultra-processed foods. Add salt, artificial flavors, and bright colors, and our brains simply lose control of these foods.
Unprocessed vs. processed vs. ultra-processed
Processed foods can be healthy, that’s the ultra-processed items linked to poor health. What is the difference? Very generally, ultra-processed foods use ingredients that are not found in a home kitchen. A more precise description comes from the NOVA classification system.
Unprocessed or minimally processed foods, such as fresh or frozen fruits, vegetables, seafood, meats, flours, and pastas, typically have only one item on their ingredient list.
Processed ingredients, such as vegetable oils, sugar, corn starch, are extracted directly from unprocessed foods.
Processed foods, such as bakery bread without preservatives, most cheeses, and tuna, beans, or vegetables canned in salt and water, have short ingredient lists with recognizable terms, and salt is the main preservative.
Ultra-processed foods include products such as soda, candy, cookies, cakes, energy bars, fruit-flavored yogurts, meal replacement bars and shakes, hot dogs, many types of packaged breads and cereals and frozen meals. They are often high in fat, sugar and/or sodium and are usually enriched with flavors, colors, artificial sweeteners and/or other additives. Ingredient lists can be long, like the 48 items in a Nutri-grain Baked Strawberry Breakfast Bar.
A diet high in ultra-processed foods could harm your brain for the same reasons these diets are linked to many other chronic illnesses. They are often high in calories, for example, the Burger King Texas Double Whopper contains almost a day’s worth. High-calorie diets can lead to obesity, which is linked to depression. One reason could be that fat cells become dysfunctional and release inflammatory molecules, which trigger depression, anxiety and dementia.
“Ultra-processed foods are easy to consume in large quantities because they are generally soft and easy to chew,” says Lane. They’re also super tasty – that’s the search term for super tasty. “These attributes can disrupt and override the normal ‘I’m full’ communication between your gut and your brain.”
This is one explanation for why people spontaneously ate 500 more calories per day and gained an average of two pounds during a two-week ultra-processed diet; They lost two pounds on a whole-foods diet, in a carefully controlled experiment by the National Institutes of Health.
Because these foods are typically hyperpalatable, about 14 to 20 percent of adults and 12 to 15 percent of children and adolescents are addicted to the food, according to research using the Yale Food Addiction Scale that Gearhardt helped develop. “It’s similar rates of alcohol and cigarette addiction,” she said.
By consuming ultra-processed foods, people are neglecting the “good things” like simply prepared fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
“This means you’re lacking brain-healthy nutrients, including phytonutrients, beneficial substances found in plants,” Lane wrote. For example, there are approximately 8,000 varieties of polyphenols that possess antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties; Early studies indicate that diets low in these compounds are linked to depression.
American adults consume about 57 percent of calories from ultra-processed foods; children and adolescents make up a whopping 67 percent, according to the government’s most recent Health and Nutrition Survey, which is nationally representative. It’s high: Levels as low as 20% have been linked to adverse effects on the brain.
This survey also reveals that Americans of all education and income levels exceed the 50 percent mark of calories from ultra-processed foods. “But people with low food security eat even more,” says Harvard’s Leung, who conducted the research.
One reason is that food companies target low-income communities with advertising for soda and other ultra-processed foods. These items are also often the most affordable and accessible, flooding dollar stores and convenience markets.
Want to reduce the amount of ultra-processed foods in your diet? Here are some recommendations from our experts that might help you.
The first step, Gearhardt says, is to “treat yourself with compassion.” It’s not your fault, you’re in an environment designed to get you addicted.
Aim to eat three meals and one or two snacks each day. Regular meals keep you from getting too hungry, leaving you vulnerable to impulse purchases of fast, cheap, ultra-processed foods that stimulate the brain’s reward centers.
Switch to less processed foods that you still enjoy, like nuts and ripe seasonal fruits. “One of my favorite lunches is eggs, a green salad tossed with a delicious vinaigrette and topped with Parmesan and a handful of berries,” says Gearhardt.
Compare labels and choose foods with less sodium and added sugar; and focus on those that have a short list of recognizable ingredients.
Some ultra-processed foods are healthier than others, such as supermarket whole-wheat bread which contains fiber and other nutrients. “For most people, it is not practical to go to a bakery to buy bread that does not contain preservatives or other additives,” says Leung.
Leung also suggests that parents educate their children about how food company marketing departments try to influence them to buy certain ultra-processed products, as well as the consequences of consuming these products. “Tap into children’s sense of righteous indignation,” she suggests, “by telling them how food companies manipulate them, from the way ultra-processed foods are formulated, to the packaging with characters from cartoons to eye-level and control-level placement. -driveway exit.
Readers, are you trying to kick the ultra-processed food habit? Do you have any advice for the rest of us? Let us know!