How Ultra-Processed Foods Affect Brain Health

Plus, dietary hacks to support brain health.

By: Lexy Parsons

We’re well aware that junk food is bad for our bodies. In fact, there’s strong, consistent evidence showing a direct association between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and adverse health effects, with 32 poor health outcomes indicated in new 2024 research. Not only are ultra-processed foods high in sugar, unhealthy fats, sodium, and various additives, but they also lack essential nutrients and fiber. These characteristics not only contribute to weight gain and metabolic disorders, but also lead to poor overall health outcomes. Even more alarming? Our physical health isn’t the only cause of concern — emerging research has shed light on how these foods negatively affect our brains, too.

From increased risk of cognitive decline and addictive behaviors, to neuroinflammation and poor mood and memory, the well-documented detrimental effects of ultra-processed foods on mental health are problematic. This isn’t to scare you. Rather, to make you aware — knowledge is power! By learning what the data says on ultra-processed foods and brain health, including the cognitive consequences on both short-term and long-term health, you can take back your (brain) power, and support your overall health.

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?

First, what are ultra-processed foods, exactly? Characterized by their high levels of additives, preservatives, artificial flavors, and refined ingredients, ultra-processed foods refer to foods that undergo extensive processing. They are typically high in artificial sugars, unhealthy fats, and sodium, while lacking essential nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Think: sugary soda and beverages, refined breads, packaged snacks, fast food, and ready-to-eat meals (particularly those that are shelf-stable).

If you’re confused as to whether a product is ultra-processed or not, reading the ingredient label can provide you with tons of insight! There will likely be a long ingredient list full of names you can’t recognize or pronounce, indicating that the product is highly processed, containing various additives and preservatives. Be on the lookout for terms like “hydrogenated,” “artificial,” “refined,” or “enriched,” which are often indicators of highly processed foods.

Here are some of the most common ultra-processed foods:

  • Soft drinks
  • Packaged and shelf-stable snacks
  • Processed meats and deli meats
  • Cookies and packaged desserts
  • Candy
  • Frozen dinners
  • Microwave meals

RELATED: 13 Sneaky Inflammatory Foods to Remove From Your Kitchen

A Current Update on Ultra-Processed Food Consumption

According to data, the consumption of ultra-processed foods has steadily increased in the majority of the US population over the past two decades. And, unfortunately, when it comes to the prevalence of ultra-processed foods in supermarkets, U.S. stores take the lead, containing 40% more ultra-processed foods than European stores.

So, what exactly is this doing to our health? Ahead, the detrimental impact of ultra-processed foods on our cognitive and mental health, including what recent research says.

How Ultra-Processed Foods Affect Our Health

With increased discussion around brain health and longevity, it’s important to shed light on not only the physical implications, but also the mental ones.

A recent 2024 study published in the British Medical Journal found compelling evidence linking the consumption of ultra-processed foods to poor health outcomes, for both physical and mental health. This data analysis, of nearly 10 million people, found that intake of ultra-processed food was consistently associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as an increased risk for both depression and anxiety. 

Ahead, why this is partially problematic for brain health.

The Brain & Ultra-Processed Foods

Consumption of ultra-processed foods has negative implications for our brain, both short-term and long-term. Here’s what you need to know:

Depression & Anxiety

Ultra-processed foods have been linked to an increased risk of mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety. Consuming these highly processed foods, which are often full of refined sugars, unhealthy fats, and artificial additives, can lead to fluctuations in blood sugar levels and neurotransmitter imbalances, both of which are implicated in mood disorders. Not to mention, the lack of essential nutrients and antioxidants in these foods may deprive the brain of nutrients needed for optimal mental health.


High levels of sugar and unhealthy fats found in ultra-processed foods have been linked to increased oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain, leading to a disruption in neuronal communication and impaired cognitive function. If chronic, neuroinflammation may hinder neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganize and form new connections. According to research, this can lead to an increased risk for neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease and depression.

Sugar Cravings & Addictive Behaviors

Ultra-processed foods are designed to be highly palatable, often containing large amounts of added sugars, refined fats, artificial flavorings, and calories. The combination of these ingredients impairs the brain’s reward system, leading to a dysregulation in dopamine. When acute, individuals may develop increased sugar cravings and desire to overeat. If chronic, these behaviors can turn into addictive tendencies, leading to insatiable cravings, compulsive overeating, and ultimately an increased risk for weight gain and metabolic disorders. 

Cognitive Decline

Long-term consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with accelerated cognitive decline and brain aging, leading to an increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Studies have found correlations between high intake of processed foods and poorer performance in cognitive tasks, such as memory recall, attention, and executive function. Not to mention, an increased risk for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Dietary Hacks to Protect Brain Health

While the adverse effects of ultra-processed foods are profound, the good news is that there are ways to protect the brain with simple dietary adjustments.

  • Shop the perimeter of the grocery store — this is where you’ll find whole, minimally processed foods.
  • Eat the rainbow, focusing on a wide spectrum of fruits and veggies to optimize your intake of nutrients, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids.
  • Balance your plate with a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats.
  • Practice mindful eating habits, such as listening to hunger cues, eating without distractions, and engaging all your senses.
  • Consider supplementing your diet with essential brain-healthy nutrients or superfoods such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and B vitamins
  • Consult with a dietician or medical professional to develop a plan customized to your individual needs. 

RELATED: Eating For Longevity: Top Tips For Eating Your Way to a Healthier Life

The Takeaway

The consumption of ultra-processed foods has profound implications for both brain health, and overall health. Leading to an increased risk for neuroinflammation, mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, and even addictive behaviors, ultra-processed foods can be a cause for concern. However, by staying educated and taking steps to make informed dietary choices (think: opting for whole foods, practicing mindful eating, and limiting packaged foods), you can nourish your brain, promote longevity, and live a healthy, vibrant life.