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New Science on the Link Between Junk Food and Brain Health
In a first of its kind study, a four-week diet of processed foods, including potato chips, frozen pasta entrees and pizzas, and deli meats, was linked to accelerated brain aging and memory decline.
The really interesting part, though, is that when the processed foods were eaten in combination with supplemental omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic (DHA), brain aging and memory were unchanged, suggesting that DHA may protect the brain from processed foods.
The study, published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, looked at the effect of these diets on rodents. The damage from a processed diet was seen only in older rodents. When younger rodents ate the processed food, there were no signs of brain aging and memory decline.
Researchers found that both younger and older rodents gained weight on a processed food diet. The DHA supplement offered no weight gain protection for either group.
Based on the data, reducing or avoiding processed foods while increasing consumption of food rich in DHA may slow the progression of age-related cognitive decline.
Note: This does not give younger folks permission to eat processed foods, or the elderly permission to offset the harm of junk food with supplemental DHA.
How Omega-3 Fatty Acids Support Brain Health
While brain aging is considered normal, the addition of processed foods increases the risk of inflammation in the brain.
Omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA and EPA, or eicosapentaenoic, are primarily found in algae, fish, and other seafoods. Research shows that these omega 3s support a healthy inflammation response in animals and humans but this new study is the first to show DHA’s ability to help protect the brain from inflammation brought on by a processed-food diet.
In the Brain, Behavior, and Immunity study, there was an activation of genes linked to a more aggressive inflammation response in both the hippocampus and amygdala. The hippocampus is responsible for memory and the amygdala is responsible for memories associated with emotions. DHA supplementation supported a healthy inflammation response in both these areas of the brain, resulting in normal brain aging and memory in the older group.
The Problem with Processed Foods
Processed ingredients have insidiously found their way into many of the foods we eat. They are found in most restaurants, vegan foods, so-called healthy protein and energy bars, granola, and much much more.
In one study, 57 percent of the calories eaten in America were from processed foods.
Processed foods have also been associated with a higher risk of diabetes and obesity at any age. Studies have linked obesity in children to diets high in processed food, and if they escape childhood obesity they are at a much greater risk of adult obesity from processed foods.
To protect yourself from these hidden processed foods, you have to read labels. With regards to food additives, which are highly processed, the simple rule of thumb is that if you do not recognize an ingredient as a whole food, don’t eat it. As one of my mentors, Jack Lalaine, once told me “Only eat foods without a wrapper.”
These Processed Foods Will Surprise You
This list of processed foods, from the website Getting Started with Healthy Eating, may take you by surprise.
Baked Goods and Grains
Bread (organic artisan without oil OK)
Pie crust mixes
Salt and Leavens
Fresh meat with additives
Cheese (Raw organic OK)
Milk other than raw (homogenized, pasteurized, skim, low-fat, etc.)
Fats and Oils
Instant breakfast drinks
Honey (unless raw)