Can Omega-3s Protect You from Memory Loss and Cognitive Decline?

A new study shows that junk food is associated with accelerated brain aging, but that DHA supplementation could counter the effects.

In This Article

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.

See also Learn How Fish Oils Can Make you Live Longer

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.

See also Everything You Need to Know about Omega-3 Fatty Acids

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.”

See also Beyond Processed Foods: How to Avoid Ultra-Processed Foods

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
Cornmeal
Polenta
Flour
White flour
Bread (organic artisan without oil OK)
Rolls
Buns
Muffins
Bagels
Bread sticks
Pizza crust
Pita bread
Tortillas
Croutons
Flat bread
Crackers
Macaroni
Pasta
Couscous
Orzo
Cake
Cake mixes
Pie
Pie crust mixes
Cookies
Cookie dough

Salt and Leavens
Salt
Baking powder
Baking soda

Fruit
Canned fruit
Frozen fruit
Fruit sauces
Jellies
Jams
Pie fillings
Fruit juice

Vegetables
Canned vegetables
Frozen vegetables
French fries
Ketchup
Mustard

Convenience Foods
Pizza
Precooked foods
Frozen dinners
Breakfast cereal
Granola
Energy bars

Meat
Canned meat
Cured meat
Ham
Lunch meat
Sausage
Bacon
Gelatins
Fresh meat with additives

Dairy
Cheese (Raw organic OK)
Cheese food
Milk other than raw (homogenized, pasteurized, skim, low-fat, etc.)
Most Yogurts

Fats and Oils
Refined oils
Cooking spray
Margarine
Salad dressing
BBQ sauce
Mayonnaise
Peanut butter

Drinks
Soft drinks
Fruit drinks
Instant breakfast drinks

Sweets
White sugar
Brown sugar
Corn syrup
Rice syrup
Honey (unless raw)
Syrups
Candies
Soft candies
Pudding
Dessert mixes
Ice cream
Frozen desserts
Whipped cream
Chocolate
Marshmallows
Shredded coconut
Sugar substitutes 

See also Beyond Processed Foods: How to Avoid Ultra-Processed Foods

1 thought on “Can Omega-3s Protect You from Memory Loss and Cognitive Decline?”

  1. I am curious about where the line is drawn between processed and unprocessed. Are french fries counted as processed because probably more usually than not, one gets them already prepared?

    If I take a potato I grew, slice it up and add a bit of oil and salt to bake or roast, is that processed? If I take my potato, cut it up and boil it, is that processed?

    If I take a tomato I grew and cut it up, is that processed? Or just if I then cook it, or if I add spices and then cook it (called ketchup)?

    Is ketchup on the list because is it cooked or because most ketchup is full of sugar?

    Is sea salt processed because it was dried or does this refer to Morton’s salt?

    I am curious to know exactly what definition for processed food was used in the study referred to and think the article would be more helpful if that definition was included.

    Thank you, Mary

    Reply

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