IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

A diet high in these foods could increase the risk of dementia, new study finds

A new study found that eating even small amounts of ultra-processed foods could significantly increase the risk of developing dementia.

Dementia impacts approximately 6.5 million Americans — and those numbers are predicted to go up. The CDC estimates that by 2060, 14 million Americans may be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia.

Multiple studies have shown that diet, along with age, genetics and environment, play a major role in our risk of diagnosis later in life. Now, a new study shows that eating even small amounts of certain foods could significantly increase the risk of developing dementia. The study, published in JAMA Neurology and presented at the 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, followed over 10,000 individuals for ten years. The study included men and women, with over 50% of the participants being female, white and college-educated. The average age of participants at the start of the study was 51 years old. At the end of the study, participants were evaluated on changes in cognitive performance over time by utilizing multiple cognitive-related tests. Researchers found that those who consumed over 20% or more of their calories from ultra-processed foods had a higher risk of dementia. In a 2000-calorie diet, this equates to only 400 calories each day coming from ultra-processed foods. That’s about 20 potato chips or 30 French fries. The bottom line — it’s not much.

This is not the first study linking poor health outcomes and ultra-processed foods. Multiple studies have found links to consuming ultra-processed foods with poor mental health, increased risk of cancer and heart disease, and a shortened lifespan. Previous studies, including one published in September 2022, which included over 72,000 individuals, also demonstrated a connection between ultra-processed foods and dementia.

What are ultra-processed foods?

The study defined ultra-processed foods as “industrial formulations of food substances (oils, fats, sugars, starch, and protein isolates) that contain little or no whole foods and typically include flavorings, colorings, emulsifiers, and other cosmetic additives.” Additionally, ultra-processed food is cheap, quick and has a long shelf life. Examples included sugar-sweetened beverages, frozen meals, processed red meat, potato chips, frozen French fries, store-bought cookies, sweetened breakfast cereals, refined grain pretzels and commercial bread.

How do ultra-processed foods harm health?

Ultra-processed foods have many fatal flaws, but one of the greatest is that they deliver calories, fat, sugar, and sodium with little to no nutrient density. Studies also show that it’s hard to stop eating them once an someone starts. Therefore, they may also contribute to weight gain and obesity. In the current study, researchers found that ultra-processed foods negatively impacted areas of the brain related to cognitive function. Finally, ultra-processed foods are found to increase inflammation in the brain, which is another precipitating factor in cognitive decline.

Lowering your risk of dementia can start with eating less ultra-processed foods and more whole foods. In addition, altering other components of your diet may also help.

6 habits to ditch for better brain health

Consuming a bland-colored diet.

The current study showed that consuming over 20% of your calories from ultra-processed foods could lead to a greater risk of dementia. However, the study also showed that this risk was not seen in individuals who consumed large amounts of unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The best way to eat a more whole foods approach is to count the colors in your diet and aim for at least five or more daily. The deeper hued a plant is, the better benefits it has to your health. Load up on deep-colored fruit such as berries and apples. Use deeply colored roots and herbs (such as turmeric) to season meals and snacks instead of salt, and substitute processed snacks for homemade snacks. For example, make beet chips instead of purchasing potato chips.

Consuming too little fiber.

Ultra-processed foods often contain little to no fiber. A 2022 study found that low-fiber diets were associated with a greater risk for dementia. To get more fiber in your diet, consume more beans, legumes, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. For example, have steel-cut oats for breakfast instead of sugar-sweetened cereals or store-bought pastries.

Making all your protein choices processed ones.

A 2021 study found that excess processed meat consumption may increase the risk of dementia. If you currently consume a lot of animal protein, consider eating more wild, fatty fish and skinless poultry while limiting your consumption of bacon and sausage.

Smoking — and drinking too much.

Alcohol and smoking are two potent toxins to the brain. While the MIND diet (a diet associated with a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s) allows one glass of wine daily for both men and women, many individuals struggle with keeping drinking at moderate levels and may go beyond the recommended 5 ounces. Studies show that the more alcohol you drink, the greater your risk for dementia. Additionally, smoking has been shown to have a 50% greater risk for vascular dementia in current users. Drink less (or not at all) and if you currently smoke, find resources to help you quit.

Living the couch potato life.

A 2022 systematic review and meta-analysis found that sedentary behavior was independently associated with a significantly increased risk of dementia. The good news? You don’t have to run a marathon to reduce the risk. Simply walking a few days a week may help. Exercise helps to increase blood flow to the brain. Any activity — even a little can be significantly better than none.

Having a night owl mentality.

Sleep is a critical component of overall health and longevity. A 2019 study found that lower sleep quality in the 50s and 60s led to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. If you sleep less than 7 hours a night, take steps to improve your duration and quality, such as limiting screen time in the evening or blocking out light from your bedroom.

Finally, consider taking the words “it’s too late" out of your vocabulary. Dementia does not occur overnight. Researchers believe you can develop Alzheimer’s or other dementias many years before symptoms may be evident. Some studies show you can go almost two decades before diagnosis. It’s never too late to make lifestyle changes, and studies show that changes in diet, even in middle age, can delay or prevent changes in the brain.