A study published this week looked at comparing dementia risk in people who ate different combinations of foods, both healthy foods and not. The findings indicated that while it matters what foods you eat and in what quantities, how foods are combined are also a risk factor.
“There is a complex interconnected-ness of foods in a person’s diet, and it is important to understand how these different connections or ‘food networks’ may affect the brain, because diet could be a promising way to prevent dementia,” said the study’s author Dr. Cécilia Samieri. “We found that more diversity in diet and greater inclusion of a variety of healthy foods is related to less dementia. In fact, we found differences in ‘food networks’ that could be seen years before people with dementia were diagnosed.”
The study included just over 600 participants, average age 78, a third of whom with dementia and two thirds of whom without dementia. While there was some difference in the amount of each type of food consumed, the study revealed stark differences in the overall food groups.
In addition to finding that participants who did not have dementia were more likely to have diverse diets, research indicated that the lowest-risk “food networks” — unsurprisingly — included healthier foods like fruits and vegetables, seafood, poultry and natural meats rather than highly processed meats, high-starch foods or snacks like cookies and cakes, and that food networks centered on processed meats and starches specifically appeared to increase risk.
“Processed meats were a ‘hub’ in the food networks of people with dementia,” said Samieri. “People who developed dementia were more likely to combine highly processed meats such as sausages, cured meats and patés with starchy foods like potatoes, alcohol, and snacks like cookies and cakes.”
The findings lead Samieri to believe that the frequency that processed meat appears in various combinations — rather than the quantity of processed red meat consumed — may be a risk factor: “For example,” she said, “people with dementia were more likely, when they ate processed meat, to accompany it with potatoes and people without dementia were more likely to accompany meat with more diverse foods, including fruit and vegetables and seafood.”
The findings suggest that studying diet through the big-picture lens of food networks rather than focusing on individual foods or nutrients could help untangle the complexity of diet and biology in health and disease.