possible brain damage even in a short time

Foods ultra-processed products are increasingly popular, at least by Americans, even as their negative health effects continue to emerge. The trend of increasing consumption emerged in a study for which the data of 41 thousand US citizens were used who, through the compilation of a food diary, in the period between 2001 and 2018 had taken part in the national survey. on health and nutrition (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey). The researchers from New York University who carried out the study, published inAmerican Journal of Clinical Nutrition they divided foods into four broad categories: processed foods only minimally such as fruit, vegetables, cereals, meat and milk and dairy products; foods processed with domestic preparation, that is, with the addition of salt, butter, olive oil or sugar; processed foods such as cheeses, canned fish or legumes and, finally, ultra-processed ones such as frozen pizzas, soft drinks, fast food, savory snacks, desserts, canned soups and many breakfast cereals. Then they calculated the calories consumed for each food category from the food diaries. The study shows that, in the 18 years under examination, the relative consumption of ultra-processed products has increased, passing from 53.5 to 57% of the calories consumed every day, while that of the foods of the first category, the least processed, has also decreased. (passed from 32.7 to 24.7% of calories).

The types the most popular foods were those of ready meals while, for the first category, there was in particular a decrease in the consumption of meat and milk and dairy products. The group of people who increased the consumption of ultraprocessed products more than any other was that of the over 60s. At the beginning of the survey, the elderly consumed the least, while in the end they were the ones who consumed the most. The authors’ conclusion is that much more needs to be done to reverse the trend. For example, it would be useful to introduce limits on advertising, to adapt official guidelines in a more restrictive sense, to improve labels and to introduce taxes on carbonated drinks and ultra-processed foods. At the same time, the consumption of fresh and poorly processed food should be encouraged also through tax levers and discounts, preferentially aimed at the poorest segments of the population, too often attracted by the low cost of ultra-processed products.

ultra-processed, senior man with slice of pizza
The ultra-transformed could induce an inflammatory state in some areas of the brain, with consequences on memory, especially in the elderly

The rest, confirmations continue to increase that these foods, for reasons not yet fully understood, are harmful. The latest news, in chronological order, is a study on rats conducted by researchers at the University of Ohio and published in mid-October. The animals were fed a diet that mimicked the human diet with a high content of ultra-processed foods (19.6% of calories from protein, 63.3% from highly refined carbohydrates, including maltodextrin, glucose syrup and sucrose. and 17.1% from fats), with or without the integration of omega-3 Dha fatty acid, or with a normal diet (32% from proteins, 54% from carbohydrates from cereals and 14% from fats).

Come reported on Brain, Behavior, and ImmunityAfter just four weeks, the elderly animals fed the ultra-transformed diet had a noticeable increase in inflammation in some areas of the brain, which is behaviorally related to manifestations of memory loss. while the elderly rats who were also given the Dha did not register these problems, even though they both gained a lot of weight. Animals fed a more balanced diet and young ones showed no obvious signs of effects on the brain.

ultra-processed, omega-3
Omega-3 Dha can counteract the inflammatory state induced by ultra-processed foods, but it is better to focus on healthier foods

According to the authors the effect on memory is the result of the inflammation induced by the ultraprocessed which appears very early and which the Dha can counteract. This does not mean, however, that you can continue to eat large quantities of ultra-processed food if you are consuming omega-3s. The best solution is in fact always to focus on a healthier diet, attentive to fiber and the quality of carbohydrates. There is therefore a lot of work to be done, with particular attention to older people, also because the trend does not seem to be going towards a decrease, on the contrary. According to initial surveys, during the harshest months of the pandemic, the consumption of this type of food has further increased, both due to the difficulty or fear of going to shops and supermarkets, and because many of these foods are perceived as comfort food and have therefore been sought above all in moments of depression, anxiety and, in general, psychological distress.

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Roberto La Pira

Agnese Codignola

science journalist