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  • Denise Scott

Processed Food and Brain Health

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

Research is making it very clear that increased consumption of ultra-processed foods can lead to a significant decrease in mental function over time.

Ultra-processed foods are those that contain large amounts of fat, sugar, and salt, as well as artificial flavors, colors and other additives. Examples include soda, cereal, white bread, potato chips, and frozen foods, like pizza, fries, and ice cream.

These foods become problematic early in a child’s life since that is the period during which taste preferences develop.

An assortment of high-fat, high-sugar, energy-dense processed foods

We know the link between ultra-processed food and health problems like obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. We now know there is also a link to brain function. The link is that high-sugar and high-fat processed foods lead to inflammation in the brain. These can affect neurotransmitter function. These inflammatory agents are called AGEs (advanced glycosylation end products)

Dietary patterns high in processed foods, or a “western dietary pattern,” strongly correlate with an increased risk of developing depression, mild cognitive impairment, and ADHD. Diets high in ultra-processed foods are likely to have deficiencies in vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids, which are vital building blocks for brain function. These deficiencies, such as B12, folate, and zinc, are tied to depression, fatigue, cognitive decline, irritability, and dementia.

Diets high in fat, sugar, and food additives, especially artificial colors, are suspected as causes of the increase in ADHD in the past two decades.

A study presented this year at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference showed a risk for cognitive decline if more than 20% of your diet comes from ultra-processed foods. Incredibly, a 2016 study revealed that Americans consumed over half of their calories from ultra-processed foods!

Foods high in sugar, in particular fructose, and refined grains (converted to sugar in the body), drive insulin levels. A diet high in sugar can lead to chronic high blood sugar levels and high insulin levels. These lead to inflammation and an increase in reactive oxygen species and toxic metabolites that accumulate in the brain to affect mental function.

Thus, diet can alter chemical reactions within the brain that affects children’s behavior. The primary culprit? SUGAR!

If a child’s calories come from nutrient-depleted, artificially laden, ultra-processed food, their brain does not get the nutrients it needs to function optimally. These nutrients include vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have revealed that children and adolescents who consume large amounts of ultra-processed foods can impact their maturing brain and:

  • Don’t score as well on standardized tests

  • Have more mental health issues

  • Have more behavioral issues

  • Can have poorer cognitive function

Too much junk food harms both the body and the brain!

Schematic of brain - the prefrontal cortex is shown in pink

Adolescents seem more susceptible than other age groups to high-fat, high-sugar foods. The prefrontal cortex is most affected. This area controls attention span, impulsivity, social behavior, and memory. The prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until adulthood and is sensitive to nutritional deficiencies.

If that isn't enough, just last week at the Diabetes Professional Care conference in London, it was reported by US researchers that highly processed foods are as addictive as tobacco. Work is being done to name certain foods as addictive. These highly processed, or ultra-processed foods deliver high doses of refined carbohydrates (sugar) and/or fat to the brain, leading to a dopamine high and creating intense cravings. These cravings lead to further consuming large amounts of these foods, which ultimately leads to preventable disease.

For brain health, fish and seafood are among the most nutrient-dense foods. These are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins. Good nutrition promotes healthy brain growth and cognitive function.

Omega-3 fatty acids benefit ADHD, major depressive disorder, bipolar depression, and PTSD. Consuming foods rich in omega-3s and reducing intake of foods high in omega-6s is beneficial for brain health. (see post on omega-3s vs omega-6s 11/16/22).

The MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) combines parts of both the Mediterranean and the DASH diets. (see post on the Mediterranean Diet 10/12/22). The DASH diet is very similar to the Mediterranean diet but further restricts salt intake. This diet promotes whole, natural foods to promote brain health and prevent cognitive deficiencies.

The best way to promote a healthy diet for your child’s brain is to limit ultra-processed foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, and foods high in saturated fat, added sugar, and salt. Serve foods in their most natural state with a variety of colors, with whole grains, fruit, and vegetables. Serve seafood twice a week to get good fats. Consider a daily multivitamin with iron for a picky eater. Realize that what your child eats can affect their physical and mental health.

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