Ultraprocessed Foods Damage Your Brain

December 12, 2022

Ultraprocessed foods damage your brain

This is a well done study from Brazil that answers a question not looked at before. What happens to upper-income folks who have resources to buy whatever food they fancy? You see, as we get wealthier, we choose more ultra-processed foods. Or, as we get poorer and more urbanized, we can only afford the most egregiously ultra-processed foods. Everyone knows that living on a tiny farm in Sicily and eating lots of olive oil, vegetables and some fish results in great health outcomes. The Mediterranean Diet has been shown to be good for you. But do we eat it? Or do we choose to go to the deli or fast food place on the way home and pick up a quick burger and fries? Pizza is, after all, the #5th most popular food in America, Burgers are #1, Fries are #3.... are so convenient.

The participants in this study were all civil servants from across Brazil. There were 10,775 participants, 55% women, 53% Caucasian, average age 52. They were followed for 8 years on average and tested at regular intervals for immediate and delayed word recall, word recognition, and phonemic and semantic verbal fluency tests. Their food choices were collected and noted.

The findings are quite remarkable. If the subjects ate more than 20% of their daily calories from "ultra-processed foods" the subjects showed a dramatic increase in cognitive decline. Anyone above the first quartile in the population of ultra-processed food consumption had a 25% increased rate of cognitive decline. Let's repeat that, in case you had some pizza before you read this. Three-quarters of folks, the top three quartiles, were all in trouble because they had more than 20% of their calories from ultra-processed foods. Ouch!!!

This raises the question, what is ultra-processed? Essentially it comes down to foods that start with food-like ingredients but then has a majority of ingredients being flavorings, preservatives, colors, binding and thickening agents, all not routinely sold at retail. Read the FAO report from the UN.

This is a sea change. We have talked about foods being "Whole Foods" but really we have split our thinking into carbs, fats, and proteins. This categorization changes that construct back into how much the food has been altered from its native, original self. A Peruvian potato is quite a different thing from a modern potato that is pulverized into a paste, soaked in oils, saturated with fat and preservatives, and sold in a cardboard tube.

"The most important factor now, when considering food, nutrition and public health, is not nutrients, and is not foods, so much as what is done to foodstuffs and the nutrients originally contained in them, before they are purchased and consumed. That is to say, the issue is food processing—or, to be more precise, the nature, extent, and purpose of processing, and what happens to food and to us as a result of processing". That puts it in nicely.

And this study is the first, large study to take that clarion call of alarm and examine it in a population and for effects of ultra processing. They are stark.

www.What will Work for me. This is so important, we will talk more about it next week. I wanted to catch your attention with this story so that you learn this as urgently and thoroughly as I do. We should all know all the categories so that we can evaluate everything we eat, every day by that classification and make our choices accordingly. Stop thinking about proteins, carbs and fats and start thinking about the 12 ingredients on the package you never heard of and can't buy anywhere. And then, the Mediterranean Diet will make pretty good sense.

References: JAMA Neurology, In the Kitchen, Current Devel Nutrition, FAO, Public Health Nutrition,

Pop Quiz

1. What is the definition of Ultraprocessed foods?                   Answer: Foods that have more ingredients than their native, original food composed of preservatives, colorings, flavors, and conditioning chemicals. (more details to follow next week.)

2. What did this study show?                    Answer: Folks who ate more than 20% of their calories (75% of this population sample) from ultraprocessed foods had a 25% increased rate of cognitive decline.

3. This data matches what we see when we eat "Keto" or "Vegan". T or F                       Answer: Mixed picture. It changes the conversation from protein, carb and fat to how much the food has been "prepared" and altered from its original self. Mostly this has to do with making products with long shelf lives that have enhanced, more intense flavors from added salt, sugar and other flavors. Think pork loin versus bologna. Think white bread versus whole grain cereal. Think energy bar versus a banana.

4. It's easy to calculate how much we eat ulltraprocessed foods. T or F                   Answer: It's a whole new paradigm. We have to learn to think differently.

5. America's number 1 food is...?                     Answer: a hamburger followed by hotdogs, french fries, Oreo cookies and pizza. And which of these would be considered ultraprocessed? Read next week to understand why all of them qualify.