We all forget names, lose our keys, and misplace our cellphones. Occasional brain fog is so common and has so many potential triggers (lack of sleep, stress, medications, or depression, etc.) that it’s very difficult to tell if your brain is aging faster than you might expect it to or if your forgetfulness is simply a temporary symptom of living a crazy modern life.
One thing you’ll definitely want to remember to help you stay mentally sharp is that your eating habits over time may accelerate memory decline and other markers of waning cognitive function that is associated with the aging brain.
We’re still learning about the various forms and causes of dementia and the mechanics of the abnormalities that characterize Alzheimer’s disease, but more and more research suggests that our diets play a critical role.
“What we eat affects more than our bodies; it also affects our brain,” says Uma Naidoo, MD, a nutritional psychiatrist, trained chef, and director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Eating an order of French fries is not going to fry your brain. It’s the regular consumption of those unhealthy foods overtime that may compromise your brainpower just as it can increase the likelihood of experiencing other disorders associated with aging, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
Let’s review the types of foods that negatively affect our health and the research behind their dangers.
One of the ways food impacts cognitive function is through the brain-gut connection. Science suggests an unbalanced mix of healthy and unhealthy bacteria in our microbiome can influence our brain chemistry, specifically neurochemicals like noradrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine, which impact learning and memory.
One study published in the European Heart Journal found that excess red meat consumption may raise levels of trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), a byproduct of gut bacteria metabolism. High TMAO levels may be linked to higher risk of heart attack and stroke.
An unhealthy microbiome is also linked to chronic inflammation, including brain inflammation, which may affect blood flow to the brain. “In addition, changes in gut bacteria may increase amyloid deposits, thereby contributing to Alzheimer’s disease,” writes Dr. Naidoo in her book This is Your Brain on Food.
Fructose is the sugar in healthy fruit, but it’s also in cane sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), the cheap liquid sweetener that food manufacturers add to processed foods to improve the flavor and keep us eating them. Cane sugar and HFCS is so prevalent in our food supply (soft drinks, candy, condiments, salad dressings, canned soups, baked goods, bread loaves, and other processed foods) that it can be a significant danger to the brain over years of overindulgence.
The US Department of Agriculture says the average American swallows 47 pounds of cane sugar and 35 pounds of HFCS over the course of a year. That’s too sweet. Rodent studies suggest that getting a big dose of fructose could alter brain cells’ ability to signal to each other and cause memory loss and disrupt learning. The results suggest that “eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain’s ability to learn and remember information,” UCLA researcher Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, PhD, told Science Daily.
Keep track of how often you open a box or can of the course of the day. It could be an eye-opener. A recent study linked getting more than 20% of your daily calories from ultra-processed foods with faster cognitive decline, memory, and executive functions like juggling multiple tasks at once.
The research determined that men and women who ate the most ultra-processed foods declined 28% faster in memory, attention, verbal fluency, and visual/spacial ability and 25% faster in executive function compared with people who ate the least amount of highly processed foods. Highly processed foods include pre-prepared frozen foods, potato chips and pretzels, ice cream, store-bought bread, cookies, cake mixes, cereals, packaged snack foods, and more.
Fried foods – French fries, fried chicken, fried jalapeno poppers, batter-dipped deep-fried Oreo cookies, fried okra, and their ilk—are among the most ultra-processed foods on the planet. They are also among the most inflammatory foods you can possibly eat, which suggests a possible reason for the results of a large study of more than 18,000 people from a region of the Southeast known as the “stroke belt,” where “southern-fried” cooking is prevalent.
The connection between fried foods and blood-vessel inflammation is well established from other studies. This one, published in the Journal of Nutritional Science, demonstrated that participants whose diets included the most fried foods scored lowest on tests of memory and cognition.
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