Ultra-Processed Food Can Raise Risk of Cognitive Decline and Stroke

The good news is that even small improvements in your diet can make a meaningful difference in promoting brain health, a new study suggests.

ultra processed foods sodas chips cookies
Sodas and prepackaged snacks aren’t great for your body — or your brain.Canva (3)

A diet with more ultra-processed foods,?such as prepackaged meals, deli meats, potato chips, sodas, and sweetened breakfast cereals, is associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline and stroke, new research found.

For the study, scientists examined roughly a decade of data on eating habits, cognitive function, and stroke for about 30,000 adults starting in their mid-sixties. None of the participants had a history of cognitive impairment at the start of the study. By the end of follow-up, 1,108 people had a stroke and 768 people developed cognitive impairment.

Higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was linked with an 8 percent greater risk of stroke and a 12 percent higher risk of accelerated cognitive decline, according to study results published in Neurology.

At the same time, people who ate the most unprocessed or minimally processed foods had a 9 percent lower risk of stroke.

“Our study provides a reason to be mindful of the food we eat,” says the senior study author,?W. Taylor Kimberly, MD, PhD, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and the chief of neurocritical care at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “Not only should we aim to increase the amount of healthy foods, such as leafy greens, nuts, and fish-based protein, but we should also aim to reduce the amount of prepackaged foods and sweet and salty snacks.”

Small Changes in Ultra-Processed Food Consumption Matter

The study also found that small dietary changes can make a meaningful difference for brain health.

Each 10 percent increase in the amount of unprocessed and minimally processed foods participants consumed was associated with a 12 percent lower risk of accelerated cognitive decline. And each 10 percent increase in consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a 16 percent higher risk of accelerated cognitive decline.

The negative impact of ultra-processed foods and the benefits of unprocessed or minimally processed foods persisted even when people followed diets known to promote brain health such as the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, or the MIND diet, according to the study. These diets all encourage consuming more plant-based meals, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts and recommend limiting intake of ultra-processed foods, red meat, and sugary foods and drinks.

Generally speaking, ultra-processed foods tend to be the most heavily processed packaged products available in the grocery store. These are typically industrial foods made almost entirely of substances extracted from things like oils, fats, sugars, starches, and proteins, or synthesized in labs and factories with few, if any, ingredients that come directly from natural plant or animal sources.

Take potatoes. The whole potato you buy in the produce aisle isn’t processed at all, and canned potatoes are minimally processed. But potato chips and frozen hash browns are ultra-processed.

Why Ultra-Processed Foods Might Be Bad for Brain Health

The study wasn’t designed to prove whether or how ultra-processed foods might directly cause cognitive decline or stroke but simply looked for an association.

But researchers do have theories about why ultra-processed food might pose a risk to cognitive function. It’s possible that substances used to process foods and give them a long shelf life might be bad for the brain, says Glen Finney, MD, a professor and the director of the memory and cognition program at Geisinger Health in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

“There are often chemicals and other substances added to ultra-processed foods that are different from what we would have eaten in traditionally prepared foods, and some of those may have brain health risks,” says Dr. Finney, who wasn’t involved in the new study. “It’s still something that we need to know more about.”

Beyond this, ultra-processed foods tend to provide a lot of calories from unhealthy ingredients, says Yu Chen, MPH, PhD, a professor of epidemiology at New York University Grossman School of Medicine in Manhattan who wasn’t involved in the new study.

“These foods contain added ingredients like sugar, salt, fat, artificial colors, and preservatives, as well as substances extracted from foods such as fats and starches,” Dr. Chen says. “Components like fat can trigger inflammation, possibly leading to vascular dysfunction and impacting cognitive functions.”

What’s the Best Way to Eat for a Healthy Brain?

To promote brain health over time, people should limit ultra-processed foods as much as they can and try to incorporate as many whole foods as possible, says Andrew Budson, MD, a professor of neurology at Boston University and a coauthor of Seven Steps to Managing Your Aging Memory.

“Don’t eat processed foods, which can include chips, industrial breads and pastries, packaged sweets and candy, sugar and diet sodas, instant noodles and soups, ready-to-eat meals and frozen dinners, and processed meats such as hot dogs and bologna,” says Budson, who wasn’t involved in the new study.
“Simply eat unprocessed or minimally processed foods, which — when combined with a healthy Mediterranean menu of foods — include fish, olive oil, avocados, whole fruits and vegetables, nuts and beans, and whole grains,” he adds.

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

Everyday Health follows strict sourcing guidelines to ensure the accuracy of its content, outlined in our editorial policy. We use only trustworthy sources, including peer-reviewed studies, board-certified medical experts, patients with lived experience, and information from top institutions.

Sources

  1. Bhave V et al. Associations Between Ultra-Processed Food Consumption and Adverse Brain Health Outcomes. Neurology. May 22, 2024.
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