Ultra-processed foods are quick, convenient and hard to avoid, but there is growing evidence that eating these products can have an impact on brain health, leading to cognitive decline and stroke.

According to a new study published in the clinical journal Neurology, those who consumed just 10 per cent more ultra-processed foods increased their risk of stroke by 9 per cent and cognitive impairment by 12 per cent. Earlier this month, a separate study found those who consumed an average of seven servings a day of ultra-processed foods faced an increased risk of death.

"The downside is really coming into focus, that there is a cost associated with these foods," Dr. W. Taylor Kimberly told CTV National News. "Individually and collectively, we need to think about what that cost is and how to tackle that."

Kimberly and his team of researchers looked at 30,000 participants in the United States for this study and found ultra-processed foods are likely affecting our brains in two ways.

One is directly, in the way our gut breaks down ultra-processed food, and the other is that those who consume a high amount of ultra-processed food are at greater risk for things like heart disease and obesity, which also impacts the brain.

Food is considered ultra-processed when it goes through multiple processing steps. For example, a tomato from the vine is considered a "whole food," a diced tomato in a can is considered "processed," but when salt, sugar and chemicals are added to make that tomato into soup, it becomes "ultra-processed."

"During processing, oftentimes nutrients are removed and other nutrients like salt and sugar are added," says Amanda Nash, a registered dietician with the Heart and Stroke Foundation. “The point is for it to be convenient, ready to eat, ready to drink or ready to heat.”

These are the types of food Sandra Elia says she ate as a way to self soothe.

“In my 20s, I was classified as morbidly obese and my diet was primarily ultra-processed foods," she says.

Elia is now a food addiction counsellor, helping people find better balance in their diets. She says reading the packaging and understanding ingredients is key, as is eating for health and not just your waistline.

"This is about eating whole natural foods to protect our cognitive abilities and brain health," she says.

While the study found that adding just small amounts of ultra-processed foods to your diet can impact brain health, the lead researcher says cutting out small amounts can decrease that risk as well.

"Even if you make small changes over the course of the week, like swapping out a pre-packaged meal, that’s a measurable change," Kimberly says.

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Experts also say not all processed and ultra-processed foods are the same and there is a spectrum when considering what to eat. For example, oatmeal with rolled oats is better than bran cereal, which is better than sweetened breakfast cereals. They say consumers should look for packaged foods with minimal ingredients and that products that contain ingredients like maltodextrin, soy lecithin and locust bean gum are likely ultra-processed.

It can be hard and expensive to remove all ultra-processed foods from our diets, but making changes early can have a long-term impact.

"What our study does suggest is the earlier in life you do it and the longer you're able to maintain it, the better off you are," Kimberly said.