Is it possible that ultra-processed foods will erode cognitive performance?

Is it possible that ultra-processed foods will erode cognitive performance? ...

Ultra-processed foods (UPF) are becoming more prevalent in developing countries, relying on minimally-processed and unprocessed foods.

UPFs account for 57% of the adult population's energy consumption in the United States, while 67% among children and adolescents.

Processed foods include typically two or three ingredients and include the following items:

  • canned vegetables
  • salted nuts
  • cheese
  • plain yogurt

UPFs are made up of no whole foods, undergo several industrial processes, and contain ingredients, including flavorings, colorings, and cosmetic additives.

  • packaged snacks
  • chocolate
  • pre-prepared dishes such as pizza and pasta
  • breakfast cereals

Increased consumption of UPFs is linked to decreased nutritional quality of diets, and chronic illnesses, including obesity, metabolic disorders, and cardiovascular disease (CVD).

Understanding more about how UPFs affect overall health might help shape diet recommendations to improve public health.

Researchers have recently studied the effects of UPFs on cognitive performance in older adults.

Undergoing UPF usage was linked to poorer language and executive function cognitive tests among those without chronic conditions, according to the researchers. Increasing UPF consumption may help improve impaired cognition among older adults.

The research has been published in the European Journal of Nutrition.

Animal fluency testing

The researchers looked at data from 2,713 individuals aged 60 years and older from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) of the United States from 2011 to 2014.

Researchers administered several cognitive tests to participants and tested their dietary intake through two 24-hour diet recalls.

In the end, the researchers concluded that there was no relationship between overall cognitive test scores and UPF intake.

Only among individuals with pre-existing chronic health conditions, UPF usage was linked to lower performance in Animal Fluency tests, which measure language and executive function.

Animal fluency tests are a process that involves naming as many animals as possible in a short period of time, usually lasting around a minute.

Mechanisms that are undergirding the situation

The researchers noted that over the previous few years, many studies have linked eating habits rich in UPFs with cognitive impairment.

They discovered that underlying mechanisms may include systematic metabolic changes that lead to low-grade inflammation, impairment of the blood-brain barrier, and neuroinflammation.

Consuming excessive amounts of UPFs may impair the microbiome and the gut-brain axis, as eating them instead of whole foods may result in a shortage of essential nutrients and bioactive compounds with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

Prof. Kaarin Anstey, a scientia professor of psychology at the University of South Wales and a senior principal research scientist at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA), told Medical News Today that UPFs, in theory, may reduce cognitive performance through several mechanisms.

[Unhealthy] fats and sugars, which comprise [ultra-processed] foods, have independently been shown to impact brain health. [C]onsuming these foods [also] replaces the potential consumption of healthier foods that are more nutrient dense and associated with better cognitive health. Prof. Kaarin Anstey

Prof. Antsey concluded that UPF can increase obesity and type 2 diabetes, and both of these conditions increase the risk of cognitive decline. In addition, the contribution of the many food additives in these foods to cognitive decline is not yet understood.

Reduced UPF usage may be a strategy to lessen dementia risk as a result of ageing.

Several limitations

One of the study's authors, Dr. Barbara Cardoso, a senior lecturer in nutrition, dietetics, and food at Monash University, told MNT, that causality cannot be excluded from the study, as participants were only assessed on one occasion.

A longer-term study would therefore be required to draw more convincing conclusions.

She further indicated that 24-hour dietary recalls may not accurately reflect normal dietary intake.

It's possible that reverse causality might stifle the studied associations, as we understand that chronic illness sufferers are encouraged to alter eating habits.

The number of cognitive tests was small, and it is possible that correlations with other tests might have been discovered. Lastly, although the study does sample different racial groups, there was a greater proportion of non-Hispanic whites in the sample and lower proportions of other racial groups than reflected in the general population of the United States, Dr. Anstey also noted.

Despite its limitations, Dr. Cardoso noted that this is the first study to investigate the connection between UPFs and cognitive decline, and that it might pave the way for future research.

Cognitive decline is best served by a balanced diet.

Dr. Cardoso suggested that when asked what they should eat more of in order to prevent cognitive decline, current research suggests that a Mediterranean-style diet may aid cognitive functioning.

According to research, Mediterranean diets, which are characterized by a high proportion of foods with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, are associated with a reduced risk of age-associated cognitive decline and dementia. Foods consumed as part of these diets include fish, nuts, olive oil, and vegetables.

Dr. Anstey agreed with Dr. Cardoso and asserted that a specific Mediterranean diet known as the MIND diet has been linked to a reduced risk of Alzheimers disease and dementia.

According to MIND, she recommends eating green leafy vegetables daily as well as berries a couple of times per week.

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