Are ultra-processed foods bad for your brain health? Study raises warning

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Ultra-processed food linked to early death: study
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Ultra-processed foods, like pop, hot dogs and candies, have been linked to a higher risk of stroke and cognitive decline, a new study says, warning about poor brain health outcomes from consuming greater amounts of such items.

The U.S.-based research published Wednesday in the Neurology medical journal found that a 10 per cent increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a nine per cent increased risk of incident stroke, including in people with no history of a stroke.

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Yale School of Medicine and University of Alabama at Birmingham also found that a greater intake of ultra-processed foods was tied to a 12 per cent higher risk of cognitive impairment.

Meanwhile, eating foods that were unprocessed or minimally processed were associated with a lower risk of both stroke and cognitive decline.

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The study included more than 30,000 adults aged 45 years and older who were tracked from 2003 to 2007.

Dr. W. Taylor Kimberly, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and senior study author, said that even making relatively modest changes in a person’s diet by swapping in ultra-processed food for healthier alternatives like fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes can make a big difference on their brain health.

“What you’re talking about is one or two meals a week. If you can exchange that from an ultra-processed meal to an unprocessed food or meal, that is associated with a measurable reduction in the risk of stroke or cognitive impairment,” he told Global News in an interview Wednesday.

“It’s not only what we eat that matters, but how the food is processed before we eat it,” Kimberly said.

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What are ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed foods go through multiple processes such as extrusion, moulding and milling, and contain many added ingredients and are highly manipulated, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

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Processed foods, meanwhile, refer to foods where ingredients such as oil, sugar or salt are added, and they are packaged.

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Soft drinks, chips, chocolate, candy, ice cream, sweetened breakfast cereals, packaged soups, chicken nuggets and fries are some examples of ultra-processed foods.

Kimberly said such foods are commonly found in convenience stores and are made in industrial plants.

“They’re designed and processed from food ingredients to enhance shelf-life convenience and often, also, with enhanced taste,” he said.

This latest Neurology study adds to a growing body of research linking ultra-processed food with adverse health outcomes.

A study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) earlier this month found that over a span of 34 years, people who consumed a greater quantity of highly processed foods (averaging seven servings per day) faced an increased risk of mortality compared to those who consumed fewer servings (averaging three servings per day).

Another review of hundreds of epidemiological studies also published in the BMJ in February  found that higher exposure to ultra-processed foods is associated with an increased risk of 32 damaging health outcomes including cancer, major heart and lung conditions, mental health disorders, and early death.

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In Canada, people consume almost 50 per cent of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods, according to research by the Heart and Stoke Foundation.

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“The ideal scenario is to have a diet very enriched in fruits and vegetables and nuts and legumes and minimize red meats, and focus on fish or lean proteins,” Kimberly advised.

However, he stressed that people should focus on what’s achievable and make small changes in their diets every day that will benefit them in the long run.

That could mean choosing unprocessed meat over sausages for breakfast or nuts rather than pretzels when you want to snack.

“Small but long-term changes are meaningful and maybe more sustainable than making huge and dramatic changes that can be hard to sustain over time,” Kimberly said.

To cut back on ultra-processed foods, the Heart and Stroke Foundation also suggests cooking more often at home.

— with files from Global News’ Katie Dangerfield and Uday Rana

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