A study published in July 2022 in Neurology, a journal of the American Academy of Neurology, suggests that eating whole foods might lower the risk of dementia. The research was carried out in 72,083 adults aged 55 years and over without dementia at baseline in the UK Biobank.
The authors investigated the association between ultra-processed foods (UPF) and dementia, where participants’ diets were assessed based on the amount of UPF they consumed. The highest group had a 28% UPF diet compared to the lowest 9% UPF group.
The results implied that for every 10% increase in the daily dietary intake of UPF, the risk of dementia increased by 25%. By contrast, replacing 10% of UPF foods with whole foods (unprocessed or minimally processed) was associated with a 19% lower risk of dementia.
“Ultra-processed foods are meant to be convenient and tasty, but they lower the quality of a person’s diet,” said study author Huiping Li, Ph.D. from Tianjin Medical University in China.
“These foods may also contain food additives or molecules from packaging or produced during heating, all of which have been shown in other studies to negatively affect thinking and memory skills.”
“Our research not only found that ultra-processed foods are associated with increased dementia risk, but also found that replacing them with healthy options may decrease dementia risk.”
UPF vs. Whole Foods
UPF is made for comfort. Think ready to eat or ready to heat. These foods are high in sugar, fat, and salt and low in protein and fiber. Some examples of UPF include fatty, sweet, salty, or savory packaged snacks.
Likewise, baked goods made with ingredients such as hydrogenated vegetable shortening, sugar, yeast, whey, emulsifiers and other additives, ice cream and frozen desserts, chocolates, sweets, ready meals such as pizzas and pasta dishes, and distilled alcoholic beverages such as whiskey, gin, rum and vodka.
On the other hand, whole foods are minimally or unprocessed, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, fish, shellfish, legumes, milk, eggs, grains, spices, meat, and fermented alcoholic beverages (think cider and wine).
Minimally processed foods leave the nutrients intact. This includes methods such as canning, vacuum packing, and refrigeration, which extend the shelf life of the food, including the addition of vitamins and pasteurization (as in milk).
How to tell the difference?
Lena Beal, media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says labeling is the answer.
“Ultra-processed foods (UPF) include baked goods, cakes, chips, and candy at the grocery store checkout counter. They also include soft drinks, sweet breakfast cereals, ice cream, mass-produced bread, and flavored yogurts.
Beal advises: “Look at two labels: Cheetos and tortilla chips. Then look at the long list of ingredients on the bag of Cheetos compared to tortilla chips. Tortilla chips have corn, salt, and a bit of plant seed oil, right? So, it could be safflower, sunflower, or canola. three ingredients.
Why are UPF so popular in the US?
“Two words: convenience and cost,” says Beal. In the US, UPF consumption increased from 53.5% of calories (2001-2002) to 57% (2017-2018). Over the same period, consumption of whole foods decreased from 32.7% to 27.4% of calories.
According to Beal, “Americans eat 31% more packaged food than fresh food than almost any other country. Ultra-processed foods come from substances extracted from food through processes such as grinding or extrusion with added ingredients. They are highly manipulated and acquire more chemical presence than food”.
UPF’s perceived convenience and cost play a factor in its popularity. Not to mention the advertising. Marketing UPF makes them seem delicious and harmless, but learning to read nutrition labels is essential.
Additionally, choosing to eat healthier may involve preparing your meals at home. Why? Because it can be a special moment shared with the family or a couple, as well as a nutritious way to add more fruits and vegetables (fresh, pre-cut or frozen) to the diet.
When it comes to healthy options, “use nuts (packed with Omega-3s for heart and brain health), raisins, and dark chocolate to make a trail mix,” suggests Beal. “Seeds, nuts, cut fruits and vegetables are nature’s fast food. Make a smoothie with fresh fruits and dairy products. Use peanut butter on celery sticks.”
Travel and eat out
Beal suggests asking for condiments and dressings on the side when dining out. For example, choose a see-through sauce instead of cream sauce. Also, order meat or fish baked instead of fried, skip the bread before your meal, or eat less (whole wheat is also a better alternative to white bread).
Lastly, when you travel, locating a grocery store close to where you’re staying will make finding whole foods easier than getting all your food from restaurants.
The bottom line
Good news! You are in charge of your diet! So, every time you choose what to eat or drink, ask yourself: what is the best nutritious, minimally processed and healthy option?
Learning to evaluate food and ingredient labels is critical. Start preparing meals at home and opt for small healthy lifestyle changes to improve the way you age and feel your best.
Rebecca Myers, MSN, RN is a freelance health journalist with more than 15 years of experience in nursing. Story courtesy of Next Avenue.