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New Study Shows How Processed Foods Harm Aging Brains (Here’s What You Can Do About It)

By Sophia Harris
October 27, 2021

We’ve heard it all before: processed foods aren’t healthy, and whole foods are simply more nutritious. But just how bad is processed food, really? Will it cause long-term damage to your health? A recent study performed by researchers at Ohio State University sheds some light — and the results are intense. 

The 28-day study, published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, observes the impact of a highly-processed diet in older rats. The aging rats were fed a processed foods diet: the rat equivalent of chips, frozen dinners, and deli meats. Within four weeks, the diet triggered a strong inflammatory response in the rats, accompanied by memory loss and other negative cognitive symptoms. 

However, once researchers supplemented the processed diet with omega-3 fatty acids, the memory problems and inflammatory effects decreased significantly in the rat test subjects. Interestingly, these brain symptoms were not reported in younger rats that were fed the same processed diet, implying that older test subjects were more vulnerable to inflammation from an unhealthy lifestyle. 

So what does this mean for humans? Will eating processed food cause serious harm to our brains? 

There’s not an easy answer, but this study provides some new evidence to link aging, inflammation, and processed food: namely, that it should be avoided more assiduously as we age. Investigators in the research study indicate that highly-processed diets may even contribute to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Highly-processed diets have also been linked to obesity and type-2 diabetes

In the Ohio State study, the damage done to rats after just four weeks of the processed diet suggests that what we eat on a daily basis does indeed make a difference — and that people may benefit from reducing the amount of processed food they consume. 

How To Keep Your Brain Healthy

Since inflammation may trigger negative brain symptoms, especially as we get older, it’s important to take steps everyday to protect yourself. So what can you do? 

  • Pick a DHA-rich source of omega-3. DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid present along with EPA in seafood. DHA can fend off an inflammatory response, as the study demonstrates, even when some processed food is being consumed. Wild salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines are excellent sources of DHA. Vegan sources exist but are harder to come by: a blue-green algae supplement may be your best bet. 
  • Make easy swaps at the grocery store. When in doubt, focus on whole foods: many foods seem “healthy,” but are actually highly processed. This includes many cereals, bread, frozen meals, and instant options. Researchers recommend looking at fiber content and quality of the carbohydrates when shopping. For example, instead of instant mashed potatoes, choose whole potatoes — there’s a huge difference. 
  • Don’t fall for the “low fat” fad. Some diets and food products are advertised as “low fat,” but this doesn’t mean they’re healthy. These products may actually be even more processed and contain more sugar than their original version, like low-fat peanut butter or yogurt. 
  • Boost with antioxidants. Supplementing a healthy diet with antioxidants is a great way to safeguard your brain even more as you age. Our brains are susceptible to “oxidative stress,” or an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body. Free radicals can harm the brain and cause accelerated symptoms of aging. Supplementing with antioxidants like vitamins C, A, and E, selenium, and Coenzyme Q can help keep your brain healthy and sharp as you age.

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