By Kelley Herring
It is a depressing contradiction that the “comfort foods” to which we often turn to lift our spirits and provide a quick boost of energy, do just the opposite. You know those starchy, sugary, fatty and salty foods that taste so good in the moment… but leave us feeling blue and lethargic shortly after?
In my last article, I shared a recent study which links the consumption of these so-called “ultra-processed” foods to increased symptoms of anxiety, depression and worsening mental health.
These foods create blue-mood effects by altering blood sugar metabolism, impairing the function of your cellular energy factories (mitochondria), shifting the balance of bacteria in your microbiome and by increasing oxidative stress and inflammation – including inflammation in the brain (neuroinflammation).[i]
Given this litany of causal effects, it is no surprise that researchers have discovered that eating highly-processed foods is not just associated with worsening mood… but also worsening memory.
Brain Drain: Low-Nutrient, High-Toxin Foods Promote Cognitive Decline
In a recent study published in the American Academy of Neurology, researchers set out to determine if eating ultra-processed foods was linked with dementia.
The hallmark of these foods is that they are high in sugar and refined carbs, low in nutrients, and they also contain unhealthy fats and chemicals that can negatively impact the integrity of your delicate brain cells.
Study author, Huiping Li, PhD, of Tianjin Medical University in China says:
“These foods may also contain food additives or molecules from packaging, or produced during heating, all of which have been shown to have negative effects on thinking and memory skills. Our research found that ultra-processed foods are associated with an increased risk of dementia and that replacing them with healthy options may decrease dementia risk.”
In the study, researchers identified 72,083 people, 55 and older, who did not have dementia at the start of the study. They were followed for an average of 10 years. Researchers calculated the amount of ultra-processed food the subjects of the study consumed. Then they compared the group that consumed the least with the group consuming the most.
These foods made up 9% of the daily diet of people in the lowest group, compared to 28% for people in the highest group.
After adjusting for age, gender, family history of dementia, heart disease and other factors that could affect risk of dementia, the researchers found that for every 10% increase in daily intake of ultra-processed foods, people had a 25% higher risk of dementia.
The researchers also evaluated what would happen if a person substituted 10% of ultra-processed foods with unprocessed or minimally processed foods (like fresh meat, milk, fruits and vegetables). They found that making this “healthy substitution” was associated with a 19% lower risk of dementia.[ii]
In short, the study confirmed what proponents of an ancestral diet already know: More processed foods are linked to a higher risk of dementia, while a whole-food, ancestral diet is linked to a lower risk of dementia.
Protect Your Memory with a Whole-Foods Diet
The good news is that your brain health is supported by enjoying delicious foods in their whole form.
Grass-fed beef, pastured pork and poultry, wild fish and roe, organ meats like liver and bone marrow, farm-fresh eggs and native fats – like tallow, ghee and coconut oil – are the unprocessed, nutrient-dense superfoods that provide your body and brain with the vital nutrients you need to stay sharp as you age![iii][iv]
Here are a few brain-boosting meal ideas to get you started:
- Soft Boiled Eggs, Salmon Roe & Breakfast Sausage
- Grass-Fed Steak, Collard Greens with Garlic & Baked Sweet Potatoes
- Wild Halibut with Hollandaise & Asparagus
- Chicken Livers with Sauteed Apples
- Roast Mediterranean Chicken with Olives, Artichokes & Arugula Salad
Love comfort foods, but not the carbs? Check out Kelley’s FREE new book – Carb Lover’s Keto – with 100 recipes for all of your favorite comfort foods. From Chicken Parmigiana and Coconut Shrimp to Buffalo Wings and Pizza. Discover how you can indulge – 100% guilt free!
[i] Eric M Hecht, Anna Rabil, Euridice Martinez Steele, Gary A Abrams, Deanna Ware, David C Landy, Charles H Hennekens. Cross-sectional examination of ultra-processed food consumption and adverse mental health symptoms. Public Health Nutrition, 2022; 1 DOI: 10.1017/S1368980022001586
[ii] Huiping Li, Shu Li, Hongxi Yang, Yuan Zhang, Shunming Zhang, Yue Ma, Yabing Hou, Xinyu Zhang, Kaijun Niu, Yan Borne, Yaogang Wang. Association of Ultraprocessed Food Consumption With Risk of Dementia A Prospective Cohort. Neurology, July 27, 2022 DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000200871
[iii] Jacka, FN, O’Neil, A, Opie, R et al. (2017) A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial). BMC Med 15, 23.
[iv] Lin, PY, Huang, SY & Su, KP (2010) A meta-analytic review of polyunsaturated fatty acid compositions in patients with depression. Biol Psychiatry 68, 140–147.