The link between highly processed foods and brain health

February 01, 2024 | 3 Min Read

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Eating highly processed foods is linked to age-related cognitive decline and mental health issues, according to research.

If you want to keep your brain healthy as you get older, you might want to cut certain foods out of your diet, such as cereal for breakfast, frozen pizza for lunch and ice cream in the evening. Accumulating studies suggest that eating highly processed foods could contribute to a decline in memory and thinking skills, as well as mental health issues like depression and anxiety

Highly processed foods have undergone extensive refining and processing to enhance their appearance, taste, and shelf life, and typically include chemicals, preservatives, and artificial flavours or colours. They tend to be lower in essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and dietary fibre, and contain high levels of sugar, unhealthy fats and salt compared to unprocessed foods. 

The best way to identity highly processed foods is to read food labels. A long list of ingredients, and particularly ingredients you would never find in your own kitchen, are clues that the food is highly processed. Examples include packaged sweets, white bread, some breakfast cereals, instant noodles, sugary drinks, snack bars, crackers, biscuits, ice cream, flavoured yoghurt, crisps, processed meats like sausages, hot dogs and bacon, frozen meals, and fast food.

One of the ways that highly processed foods can harm your brain health is by causing inflammation, which is the body's natural response to injury or infection. When it happens too often, it can damage your cells and tissues. Some studies have found that a diet high in highly processed foods can lead to chronic inflammation, which has been linked to a number of brain disorders, including depression, anxiety, Alzheimer's and dementia.

Another way that highly processed foods can harm your brain health is by disrupting your gut microbiome. The gut microbiome is made up of trillions of microorganisms that live in your intestines and play a crucial role in your overall health. When you eat a lot of highly processed foods, you may be harming the good bacteria in your gut, which can lead to a number of health problems, including low mood.

Highly processed foods can also be harmful to your brain health because they are often high in sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats. Too much sugar can cause your blood sugar levels to spike and then crash, which can leave you feeling tired and irritable. Salt can cause high blood pressure, which has been linked to an increased risk of stroke and other brain disorders. Unhealthy fats, such as trans fats, have been linked to a number of health problems, including cognitive decline.

Opt for a diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins to better support your brain health. A plant-based diet is rich in the nutrients that your body and brain need to function properly.

Cut back on highly processed food and instead fill your plate with healthier brain-boosting food, such as berries, onions, apples, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and fish. Spend more time cooking at home and preparing your own food using fresh ingredients.

This way, you know exactly what you’re eating and can control the amount of salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats you consume. Allianz Care Nutrition Hub is an online one-stop-shop for expats to learn about their gut health, nourish their bodies, and make healthy eating fun and accessible, no matter where they’re based. You can access it via this link.

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