Eating More Ultraprocessed Foods Can Harm Your Brain and Increase Stroke Risk, a study finds

(CNN) Eating More Ultraprocessed Foods Can Harm Your Brain and Increase Stroke risk (a new study finds) Eating more ultraprocessed foods is linked to a higher risk of memory problems and stroke, even if you’re following a healthy diet like the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, or the MIND diet, according to a new study.

These diets focus on eating lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and seeds while cutting back on sugar, red meat, and ultraprocessed foods.

Eating more ultraprocessed foods can harm your brain and increase stroke risk:

Eating More Ultraprocessed Foods Can Harm Your Brain and Increase Stroke Risk, a study finds

Dr. Andrew Freeman, a heart doctor who wasn’t part of the study, explained, “If you increase your ultraprocessed food intake by 10%, your risk of memory problems goes up by 16%. If you increase it by 100%, your risk could be 160%. But remember, this study only shows a link, not direct cause and effect.”

On the other hand, eating more fresh or lightly processed foods was linked to a 12% lower risk of memory problems, the study published in the journal Neurology found.

Fresh foods include fruits, vegetables, eggs, and milk. Lightly processed foods include things like salt, herbs, oils, canned goods, and frozen vegetables.

Ultraprocessed foods include items like prepackaged soups, sauces, frozen pizza, ready-to-eat meals, hot dogs, sausages, French fries, sodas, store-bought cookies, cakes, candies, doughnuts, ice cream, and more.

These foods are usually high in calories, sugar, and salt, and low in fiber, which can lead to health problems like weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Increased Stroke Risk

The study looked at data from 30,000 people in the REGARDS study, which includes a diverse group of White and Black participants who have been followed for up to 20 years.

The risk of stroke was 8% higher for people who ate the most ultraprocessed foods compared to those who ate lightly processed foods, said Dr. W. Taylor Kimberly, the study’s lead author and a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

For Black participants, the risk went up to 15%, likely because ultraprocessed foods can raise blood pressure more in this group, Kimberly said. However, eating more fresh or lightly processed foods lowered stroke risk by 9%.

Why are ultraprocessed foods so bad? They have poor nutrients and can spike blood sugar, leading to type 2 diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, wrote researchers Peipei Gao and Zhendong Mei in an editorial with the study.

These conditions are key risk factors for heart and brain diseases. Additives like emulsifiers, colorants, sweeteners, and nitrates/nitrites in ultraprocessed foods may also disrupt gut health and cause inflammation, contributing to strokes and memory problems.

The Growing Danger of Ultraprocessed Foods

Studies on the dangers of ultraprocessed foods are increasing. A review of 45 studies involving nearly 10 million people found that eating 10% more ultraprocessed foods raised the risk of developing or dying from many health conditions.

This 10% increase was the starting point, and eating even more ultraprocessed foods could raise the risk further, experts say.

The review showed strong evidence that eating more ultraprocessed foods was linked to a 50% higher risk of death from heart disease and common mental disorders. It also found that eating more ultraprocessed foods increased the risk of obesity by 55%, sleep problems by 41%, type 2 diabetes by 40%, and depression by 20%.

Dr. Freeman suggested, “We should put warnings on ultraprocessed foods, like we do on cigarettes, saying ‘This food may harm your health.’ We need to change our idea of ‘convenient food’ from chips to an apple or carrot that’s easy to carry and eat. We also need to make healthy options more available, especially for kids and in areas where ultraprocessed foods are the only option.”

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