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7 Worst Foods For Your Brain Health

These foods may work against your brain health goals—especially if you include them in your diet frequently.
FACT CHECKED BY Olivia Tarantino

Since about two out of every three Americans will experience cognitive impairment once they reach their 70s, it is understandable that finding ways to support brain health is top of mind for many. And one way to do that is by reducing the intake of some of the worst foods for brain health. (Yes, what you eat does have an effect on your noggin.)

"Having optimal brain health means minimizing inflammation and toxin exposure, being metabolically flexible, having supportive energetics—blood flow, oxygenation, mitochondrial function, and nutrients—and having sufficient neurotrophic support," Dale Bredesen, MD, Neuroscience Researcher, and Neurodegenerative Disease Expert, tells us.

There are many factors that can play into your risk of experiencing brain health concerns, with some being completely out of your control (like your genetics and your age). But there are other factors that may help you keep your noggin in tip-top shape, such as avoiding cigarette smoking, including physical activity in your habits, and maintaining a healthy weight.

And when it comes to your dietary choices, it is well established that following antioxidant-rich dietary patterns like the Mediterranean diet and focusing on nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins may help support your brain health naturally. A high daily intake of fruits and vegetables may result in better cognitive performance compared to those who have low amounts of fruits and vegetables in their diet.

So, eating a nutrient-dense diet packed with antioxidants, healthy fats, and micronutrients may help support your brain health. But on the flip side, there are certain foods that may work against your brain health goals, especially if you include them in your diet frequently.

If you are focused on your cognitive wellness, these are the 7 worst foods for brain health that you should be eating in very limited amounts (if at all) to help keep your mind working as well as possible. Read on, and for more, don't miss 9 Brain-Boosting Foods to Enhance Your Cognitive Function.

Fried chicken

fried chicken
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Deep-fried anything sure does taste good. And that satisfying crunch you enjoy once you bite into your fried food is something that is hard to replace. But eating fried food, like fried chicken, frequently isn't doing your brain any favors. Results of a meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed a relationship between more fried food intake and increased risk of cognitive health concerns.

If you can't do without some crisp on your chicken, try breading and baking it instead of deep frying.

 The Best Way to Cook Fried Chicken in an Air Fryer, According to Chefs

Gummy bears

gummy bears
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We all love a sweet treat once and a while. But candies such as gummy bears are pretty much void of anything nutritious, as they are essentially made from pure sugar. While sugar in the glucose form is needed as an energy source, too much sugar consumption is linked to impaired memory and an increased risk of dementia. Because of this, you are better off reserving your gummy candy for occasional indulgences and sticking with more nutrient-dense sweet snacks for frequent noshing, like fruits.

Swordfish

bbq swordfish
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It is recommended that people should consume more fish and shellfish for brain health benefits because of the healthy fats and choline many options provide. But there are some caveats that go with that generalized recommendation.

First, your seafood should not be fried, as fried food intake is linked to poor cognitive health outcomes. And second, your fish should not contain large quantities of mercury. Swordfish is a larger fish, and it is known to tend to have larger amounts of mercury accumulated in its meat.

Why avoid fish with high mercury content? Higher mercury accumulation is linked to lower performance on cognitive function tests. "Fortunately, there are scrumptious alternatives like wild-caught SMASH fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring), with much higher omega-3 fats and very low levels of the brain-toxic mercury found in tuna, shark, and swordfish," Dr. Bredesen advises.

Hot dogs

hot dogs
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We generally don't eat hot dogs or other ultra-processed meats thinking they are a "health food." But consuming them frequently may be wreaking havoc on your brain health, especially if you are not balancing out your processed meat intake with brain health-supporting foods like salmon, walnuts, and green veggies.

Many studies link the consumption of ultra-processed meats to negative effects on cognitive health. For example, a recent study published in the European Journal of Nutrition showed those who ate more ultra-processed meats and other foods showed less ability to perform certain tests.

Dr. Bredesen adds that "unfortunately, nitrate and nitrite-containing meats such as hot dogs, ham, and deli meats increase the risk for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, as well as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes."

 10 Unhealthiest Fast-Food Hot Dogs To Stay Away From Right Now

Fast food

eating fast-food
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Sometimes it is not the food that you are eating, but rather what your food is packaged in that poses a risk. Fast food wrappers are notorious for containing per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), or chemicals that are linked to many negative health effects, including negative effects on our cognitive health.

PFAS are found in hamburger wrappers, pizza boxes, and other packaging that are grease-resistant. These chemicals can leach into food and increase our dietary exposure, which may not work wonders for our cognitive health.

Donuts

donuts
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Donuts give a triple-whammy when it comes to foods that do not support our brain health. These treats are typically made with added sugars, which, when consumed in excess, appear to be associated with lower cognitive function.

Donuts are also deep fried and are considered an ultra-processed food, highlighting just how detrimental eating them frequently can be to your brain health.

 8 Worst Fast-Food Donuts in America

Biscuits

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If you are making your biscuits the old-school way (aka with shortening), you may be exposing your body to trans fats, which, when consumed in excess, may have a negative effect on the brain and nervous system.

Watch your ingredients when you are whipping up a batch and try leaning on a more nutritious option, like whole grain toast, when you are deciding on what to enjoy for breakfast.

 11 Breads with the Highest Quality Ingredients

Lauren Manaker MS, RDN, LD, CLEC
Lauren Manaker is an award-winning registered dietitian, book author, and recipe developer who has been in practice for almost 20 years. Read more about Lauren
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