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New Study Shows Eating More Whole Foods Can Decrease Dementia Risk

Opting for unprocessed or minimally processed food options can go a long way

By Rebecca Myers, MSN, RN

A study published in July 2022 in Neurology, a journal from the American Academy of Neurology, suggests that eating whole foods might decrease dementia risk. The research was done on 72,083 adults over age 55 with no dementia at baseline in the UK Biobank. 

An array of fresh carrots, zucchini, peppers, potatoes and tomatoes. Next Avenue, foods dementia prevention
When it comes to wholesome go-to's that could lower your risk of dementia, try nuts (full of Omega-3s), raisins, and dark chocolate to make a trail mix. Seeds, nuts, cut-up fruits, and vegetables are nature's fast food.   |  Credit: Photo by Marisol Benitez

"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 authors investigated the association between ultra-processed foods (UPF) and dementia, where participants' diets were evaluated based on how much UPF was consumed. The highest group had a diet of 28% UPF compared to the group with the lowest consumption of UPF at 9%.

The results implied that for every increase of 10% in the daily dietary intake of UPF, the risk of dementia increased by 25%. Conversely, replacing 10% of UPF foods with whole (unprocessed or minimally processed) foods was associated with a 19% lower risk of dementia.

"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, Ph.D. of Tianjin Medical University in China. 

"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 affect thinking and memory skills negatively."

"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."

UPF vs. Whole Foods

UPF is made for convenience. Think ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat. These foods are high in sugar, fat, and salt and low in protein and fiber. A few examples of UPF include fatty, sweet, savory, or salty packaged snacks. 

Also, baked products made with ingredients such as hydrogenated vegetable fat, sugar, yeast, whey, emulsifiers, and other additives, ice creams and frozen desserts, chocolates, candies, pre-prepared meals like pizza and pasta dishes, and distilled alcoholic beverages such as whisky, gin, rum and vodka. 

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On the other hand, whole foods are unprocessed or minimally processed, such as fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, seafood, legumes, milk, eggs, grains, spices, meat and fermented alcoholic beverages (think alcoholic cider and wine). 

Minimally processed foods leave the nutrients intact. This contains methods like canning, vacuum packing, and refrigeration — which extend the food item's life, including adding vitamins and pasteurization (as in milk).

How To Tell The Difference?

Lena Beal, media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says that labeling is the answer.

UPF is made for convenience. Think ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat.

"Ultra-processed foods (UPF) involve baked goods, snack cakes, chips, and candy at the grocery store's check-out counter. They also include soft drinks, sweet breakfast cereals, ice cream, mass-produced bread and flavored yogurts."

Beal advises, "Look at two labels: Cheetos and tortilla chips. Then, look at the long list of ingredients on the Cheetos bag compared to tortilla chips. Tortilla chips have corn, salt, and some plant seed oil, right? So, it could be safflower, sunflower or canola. Three ingredients." 

"Two words: convenience and cost," says Beal. In the U.S., UPF consumption increased from 53.5% of calories (2001-2002) to 57% (2017-2018). During the same period, whole food consumption decreased from 32.7% to 27.4% of calories.

According to Beal, "Americans eat thirty-one percent more packaged food than fresh foods than nearly any other country. Ultra-processed food comes from substances extracted from food through processes like milling or extrusion with added ingredients. They are highly manipulated and take on more of a chemical presence than food."

The perceived convenience and the cost of UPF play a factor in their popularity. Not to mention advertising. Marketing UPF makes them seem delicious and harmless, but learning to read nutritional labels is essential.

In addition, choosing to eat healthier might entail prepping your meals at home. Why? Because it can be a special time shared with family or a partner as well as a nutritious path to adding more fruits and vegetables (fresh, pre-cut, or flash-frozen) to one's diet. 

Each time you choose what to eat or drink, ask yourself: what is the best, minimally processed, healthy choice for nutrition?

When it comes to wholesome go-to's, "use nuts (full of Omega-3s for heart and brain health), raisins, and dark chocolate to make a trail mix," suggests Beal. "Seeds, nuts, cut-up fruits and vegetables are nature's fast food. Make a smoothie out of fresh fruit and dairy. Use peanut butter on celery sticks."

Traveling and Eating Out

Beal suggests asking for condiments and dressings on the side when dining out. For instance, choose a sauce you can see through instead of cream sauce. Also, order baked meat or fish instead of fried, skip the pre-meal bread or eat less of it (whole wheat is also a better alternative to white bread).

Lastly, when traveling, locating a grocery store near where you are staying will make finding whole foods easier than getting all your food from restaurants.

The Bottom Line

Good news! You are in charge of your diet! So each time you choose what to eat or drink, ask yourself: what is the best, minimally processed, healthy choice for nutrition?

Learning to evaluate food labels and ingredients is critical. Begin to prepare food at home and opt for small healthy lifestyle changes to improve how you age and feel your best.

Rebecca Myers, MSN, RN
Rebecca Myers, MSN, RNis a freelance health journalist with over 15 years of nursing experience (including critical care, vascular access, and education). Through her writing, Rebecca has a passion for uplifting others and helping them live their healthiest lives. She lives with her husband outside Houston, and they enjoy spending time at the beach together. Read More
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