Can Eating Ultra-Processed Food Harm Your Mental Abilities?

by | Sep 9, 2022 | Nutrition

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Memory lags can be a normal part of aging. But evidence is gathering that some kinds of foods can make things worse.

Memory lags can be a normal part of aging — like other systems in the body, the brain and nervous system can behave differently as time passes. But evidence is accumulating that some kinds of food can make things worse. 

The term “cognition” encompasses mental processes that enable us to remember, learn, and make judgments. “Cognitive decline” is a broad concept that can refer to anything from slight memory loss to dementia, where cognition deterioration can be so great that a person becomes unable to be self-sufficient. 

Several studies in recent years have found an association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and cognitive impairment. (As reported in earlier news briefs, such foods — which can include added sugars as well as colors, flavors and other additives designed to increase their appeal to taste buds and their shelf life — have been shown to cause weight gain.)  

Ultra-processed foods are far from “occasional” additions to American diets. According to a paper published in the journal Nutrition and Metabolism, they can account for more than half of energy intake.   

At a 2022 conference of the Alzheimer’s Association, a Brazilian researcher shared what she had found following almost 11,000 of her countrymen for as long as 10 years: diets in which more than 20 percent of calories came from ultra-processed food could lead to cognitive decline. (For the purposes of that study, ultra-processed foods were defined as “those that go through significant industrial processes and contain large quantities of fats, sugar, salt, artificial flavors/colors, stabilizers and/or preservatives.”) 

A study just published in the European Journal of Nutrition reported a similar finding, at least as measured by a test in which participants were asked to name as many animals as possible in a short time period. This test is used to measure language and “executive function,” mental skills necessary to such activities as concentration, planning, memory and balancing multiple tasks.  

Dr. Barbara Cardoso, one of that study’s authors, acknowledged that it did not prove causality, but could pave the way for more research.  

The journal Neurology also recently announced a new paper suggesting that people who eat the greatest amounts of ultra-processed foods may have a higher risk of developing dementia.  

Maura E. Walker, PhD, one of the study’s authors, underscored that research into this subject should not ignore the fact that ultra-processing is not restricted to what might be considered “junk food.” 

Plant-based burgers that qualify as high quality may also be ultra-processed,” she said. 

The encouraging news is that, as can be the case with other health issues related to diet, behavior changes can make a difference. “Our research not only found that ultra-processed foods are associated with an increased risk of dementia, it found replacing them with healthy options may decrease dementia risk,” said study author Huiping Li, PhD. 

If you’d like to know more about ultra-processed foods, and how they strain your body’s resources, visit Our Real Food series can help you develop a simple, clear sense of what makes up a healthy diet. 

Fundamentals of Health Alliance

Fundamentals of Health Alliance


The Fundamentals of Health Alliance works to publish useful and reliable information about nutrition and health. Their mission is to empower readers to be informed with honest, non-biased information about food, nutrition and the vital components of health.

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