Ultraprocessed Food Could Be a Cause of Early Death and Cognitive Decline

Two new studies from Brazil suggest that in addition to being bad for our waistlines, junk food may contribute to premature death and cognitive decline.

Using national food consumption surveys, demographic and mortality data and prior study analyses, the first study, which was published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in November 2022, estimated that about 57,000 (10.5 percent) of the 541,160 deaths of people ages 30 to 69 in Brazil in 2019 could be attributed to ultraprocessed food.  The researchers also estimated that reducing ultraprocessed consumption by 10 to 50 percent could reduce premature deaths by about 6,000 to 29,000 annually.

A second study, in Jama Neurology in December 2022, included 10,775 Brazilians ages 35 to 74 who were followed for an average of eight years, during which time the researchers assessed their food intake and cognitive functions.    Those who consumed 20 percent or more of their daily calories from ultraprocessed food experienced a faster decline in cognitive functioning than those who consumed less.  The authors concluded that limiting ultraprocessed food may be of some value in preventing cognitive decline.

Researchers have proposed that ultraprocessed food may increase systemic inflammation as a possible mechanism to explain their potential adverse effects.

What are ultraprocessed foods? By one definition, they are ready-to-eat, packaged products with five or more ingredients that have gone through a number of processes to combine and transform them.  They include everything from processed meats (like hot dogs and chicken nuggets), margarine and frozen meals to most baked goods, chips, ice cream and candies.

These two studies remind us of what we already knew – skip the junk food as much as you can, which can be challenging to do, so be patient and kind to yourself.  Small changes are a big step in the right direction.  Feast on fresh, natural “real” foods for a long, thriving life!

The Wellness Letter

In Collaboration With The UC Berkeley School of Public Health

January 31, 2023

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