British researchers found that people eating ultra-processed foods, which are high in sugar, fat and salt yet low in protein and fibre, may have a higher risk of developing dementia than those who eat little processed foods.
The study, published in the American Journal of Neurology, analysed over 72,000 British people from the UK Biobank — a large database containing the health information of hundreds of thousands of British residents.
“Ultra-processed foods are meant to be convenient and tasty, but they diminish the quality of a person’s diet,” said study author Huiping Li, PhD, of Tianjin Medical University in China, in a media release.
“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 have negative effects on thinking and memory skills. Our research not only found that ultra-processed foods are associated with an increased risk of dementia, but it also found replacing them with healthy options may decrease dementia risk.”
The participants for the study were 55 and over and did not have dementia at the start of the study. During the study, participants filled out questionnaires about their eating habits from the previous day.
Researchers determined how much-processed foods each participant ate by calculating the grams and comparing them to grams per day of other foods in their daily diet.
Participants were followed for approximately 10 years and by the end of the study, 518 of the participants were diagnosed with dementia.
Researchers also used study data to examine what would happen if a person substituted 10% of processed foods with less unhealthy or minimally processed foods and found that the alternative was associated with a significantly lower risk of dementia (19%).
“Our results also show increasing unprocessed or minimally processed foods by only 50 grams a day, which is equivalent to half an apple, a serving of corn, or a bowl of bran cereal, and simultaneously decreasing ultra-processed foods by 50 grams a day, equivalent to a chocolate bar or a serving of fish sticks, is associated with 3% decreased risk of dementia,” said Li.
“It’s encouraging to know that small and manageable changes in diet may make a difference in a person’s risk of dementia.”