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7 Brain Damaging Foods to Avoid

It can be difficult to choose foods that properly fuel your brain and keep it healthy. Regularly consuming these unhealthy products may damage your brain and put you at risk of cognitive disorders. If you are experiencing brain fog, having trouble focusing, or dealing with memory issues, it may be time to change your diet.

Why should you try cut back on these foods? They have been linked to:

• Cognitive decline
• Memory disorders
• Brain fog
• Increased risk for type-2 diabetes
• Weight gain
• Increased risk for anxiety and depression
• Many other chronic health issues


It’s no surprise that highly processed foods like chips and ice cream may have damaging effects on the brain. But why are these foods so bad for your cognition and overall health? These food-like products tend to be extremely high in calories and low in nutritional value, which can lead to weight gain.1 This is relevant to brain health because increased body fat, especially in the midsection, is closely correlated with increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s.2 Additionally, the high sugar and fat content in processed foods may increase your risk for type-2 diabetes, another leading risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.3 On the flip-side, research has shown a decline in Alzheimer’s risk for those who do not include processed foods in their diet while those maintaining an ultra-processed diet may have an increased risk for dozens of chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s.4

• Most breakfast cereals
• Ice Cream
• Chips, crackers, and cookies
• Fruit Juices


Refined carbs such as flour, pizza dough and bread may wreak havoc on our cognitive function by elevating inflammation and free radicals in the brain.18 Since these foods are heavily processed, they are low in fiber. This means they are broken down by the body very quickly, leading to blood sugar spikes that may increase risk for diabetes.18 As a whole, refined carbs lack nutritional value and may contribute to rapid weight gain. Each time you eat them, you’re basically getting a massive carbohydrate load. Over time, too many refined carbs may increase the risk for Alzheimer’s and other brain disorders.19 Avoiding simple carbs may even help to prevent mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.20

Examples of refined carbs:

• White bread
• White flour
• Pizza dough
• Pasta
• Pastries
• White rice


Candy, cakes, pies, and soda contain tons of added sugar. A diet high in added sugar has been shown to reduce the amount of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), hindering your ability to create new memories and learn new things.5 These added sugars also trigger your brain’s reward response. Over time, this may fuel the same pathways that drive addiction, promoting a dangerous cycle of craving junk food.6 High sugar foods provide quick energy without nutritional value, which could lead to slower cognitive function and attention deficits.7 Over the past few years research has begun to draw a direct connection between the consumption of added sugars and increased inflammation in the brain.8 This brain inflammation, when combined with the cellular stress that occurs in response to a high sugar diet, may set the stage for the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.9


Many studies have shown that trans fats and vegetable oils such as canola oil can create inflammation. This is thought to lead to poor brain function and memory loss.10 Specifically, trans-fat intake has been associated with an increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.11 The high levels of omega-6 fatty acids found in vegetable oils have also been shown to promote inflammation, which may lead to substantial brain dysfunction over time.12 In terms of mental health, the brain damage linked to consumption of this type of oil has been significantly associated with depression and other mental health issues.13 To protect your brain, avoid trans fats and try switching out vegetable oils for healthier options like as olive, avocado and coconut oils.


Many of us may enjoy a glass of wine or two with a meal. But how is this impacting our brains? While there is some research supporting the benefits of moderate alcohol intake, chronic overconsumption of alcohol can be incredibly damaging. Studies have shown that alcohol abuse can lead to adverse cognitive effects including brain shrinkage and alterations in neurotransmitter pathways.14 In addition, though alcohol can seem like an easy way to fall asleep, it may severely disrupt our slumber by delaying and reducing time spent in REM sleep.15 This is particularly concerning, since sleep deprivation is linked to an increased risk for Alzheimer’s and other brain disorders.16


In recent years, aspartame has received plenty of negative press. Marketed as a safe, low-calorie alternative for sugar, this chemical may trigger the brain’s reward response system. This has been demonstrated in at least one animal study.21 Aspartame is mainly made of phenylalanine, a chemical which, in unhealthy quantities, may disrupt healthy brain function.22 According to a recent study, those who consumed high levels of aspartame as opposed to cane sugar had increased rates of depression and performed worse on mental tests.23 Furthermore, artificially sweetened beverages have been correlated with an increased risk of stroke and dementia.24


Most cured meats contain compounds called nitrates and nitrites. High levels of nitrates have been linked to increased deaths from conditions like Parkinson’s, type-2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.25 Nitrites found in jerky, salami, and hot dogs have also been linked to symptoms of bipolar disorder.26 Other studies have linked these nitrosamines found in processed meats to the development of insulin resistance, leading to an increase in cognitive decline.27 Nitrates in cured meats are often combined with unhealthy fats, added sugar, and sodium which all may contribute to an increased risk of neurocognitive deficits.28

Examples of cured meats:

• Jerky
• Pepperoni
• Bacon
• Salami
• Pastrami
• Hot dogs


If you are noticing changes in your mood, sleep patterns, energy levels, or ability to focus, these 7 foods may be contributing factors. Do your best to reduce or remove these unhealthy options from your diet to protect your brain and help avoid cognitive decline. By avoiding these 7 brain health enemies, you may notice clearer thinking, improved memory, and even a boost in your mood. You can take control of your brain health now and protect yourself from cognitive decline in the future with these simple dietary adjustments. Knowledge is power when deciding how to feed your body and brain!


1. Widya RL, Kroft LJM, Altmann-Schneider I, et al. Visceral adipose tissue is associated with microstructural brain tissue damage. Obesity. 2015;23(5):1092-1096. doi:10.1002/


2. Rippe JM, Angelopoulos TJ. Sucrose, High-Fructose Corn Syrup, and Fructose, Their Metabolism and Potential Health Effects: What Do We Really Know?12. Adv Nutr.

2013;4(2):236-245. doi:10.3945/an.112.002824

3. Berti V, Murray J, Davies M, et al. Nutrient patterns and brain biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease in cognitively normal individuals. J Nutr Health Aging. 2015;19(4):413-423.


4. Gu Y, Scarmeas N. Dietary Patterns in Alzheimer’s Disease and Cognitive Aging. Curr Alzheimer Res. 2011;8(5):510-519.

5. Molteni R, Barnard RJ, Ying Z, Roberts CK, Gómez-Pinilla F. A high-fat, refined sugar diet reduces hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor, neuronal plasticity, and

learning. Neuroscience. 2002;112(4):803-814. doi:10.1016/s0306-4522(02)00123-9

6. Lennerz BS, Alsop DC, Holsen LM, et al. Effects of dietary glycemic index on brain regions related to reward and craving in men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013;98(3):641-647.


7. Qiu Q, Lin X, Sun L, et al. Cognitive decline is related to high blood glucose levels in older Chinese adults with the ApoE ε3/ε3 genotype. Transl Neurodegener. 2019;8. doi:10.1186/


8. Beilharz JE, Maniam J, Morris MJ. Short-term exposure to a diet high in fat and sugar, or liquid sugar, selectively impairs hippocampal-dependent memory, with differential impacts on inflammation. Behav Brain Res. 2016;306:1-7. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2016.03.018

9. Akiyama H, Barger S, Barnum S, et al. Inflammation and Alzheimer’s disease. Neurobiol Aging. 2000;21(3):383-421.

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7 Brain Damaging Foods to Avoid

10. Kiage JN, Merrill PD, Robinson CJ, et al. Intake of trans fat and all-cause mortality in the Reasons for Geographical and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) cohort. Am J

Clin Nutr. 2013;97(5):1121-1128. doi:10.3945/ajcn.112.049064

11. Ginter E, Simko V. New data on harmful effects of trans-fatty acids. Bratisl Lek Listy. 2016;117(5):251-253. doi:10.4149/bll_2016_048

12. Patterson E, Wall R, Fitzgerald GF, Ross RP, Stanton C. Health Implications of High Dietary Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids. J Nutr Metab. 2012;2012.doi:10.1155/2012/539426

13. Sánchez-Villegas A, Verberne L, Irala JD, et al. Dietary Fat Intake and the Risk of Depression: The SUN Project. PLOS ONE. 2011;6(1):e16268. doi:10.1371/journal.

pone.0016268 14. Bühler M, Mann K. Alcohol and the Human Brain: A Systematic Review of Different Neuroimaging Methods. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2011;35(10):1771-1793. doi:10.1111/j.1530-0277.2011.01540.x

15. Ebrahim IO, Shapiro CM, Williams AJ, Fenwick PB. Alcohol and sleep I: effects on normal sleep. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2013;37(4):539-549. doi:10.1111/acer.12006

16. Zahr NM, Kaufman KL, Harper CG. Clinical and pathological features of alcohol-related brain damage. Nat Rev Neurol. 2011;7(5):284-294. doi:10.1038/nrneurol.2011.42

17. Bertelli AAA, Das DK. Grapes, wines, resveratrol, and heart health. J Cardiovasc Pharmacol. 2009;54(6):468-476. doi:10.1097/FJC.0b013e3181bfaff3

18. Beilharz JE, Maniam J, Morris MJ. Diet-Induced Cognitive Deficits: The Role of Fat and Sugar, Potential Mechanisms and Nutritional Interventions. Nutrients. 2015;7(8):6719-6738. doi:10.3390/nu7085307

19. Henderson ST. High carbohydrate diets and Alzheimer’s disease. Med Hypotheses. 2004;62(5):689-700. doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2003.11.028

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7 Brain Damaging Foods to Avoid

20. Oddy WH, Allen KL, Trapp GSA, et al. Dietary patterns, body mass index and

inflammation: Pathways to depression and mental health problems in adolescents. Brain Behav Immun. 2018;69:428-439. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2018.01.002

21. Lenoir M, Serre F, Cantin L, Ahmed SH. Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward.

PLoS ONE. 2007;2(8). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000698

22. Humphries P, Pretorius E, Naudé H. Direct and indirect cellular effects of aspartame on the brain. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2008;62(4):451-462. doi:10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602866

23. Lindseth GN, Coolahan SE, Petros TV, Lindseth PD. Neurobehavioral effects of aspartame consumption. Res Nurs Health. 2014;37(3):185-193. doi:10.1002/nur.21595

24. Pase MP, Himali JJ, Beiser AS, et al. Sugar- and artificially-sweetened beverages and the risks of incident stroke and dementia: A prospective cohort study. Stroke.

2017;48(5):1139-1146. doi:10.1161/STROKEAHA.116.016027

25. de la Monte SM, Neusner A, Chu J, Lawton M. Epidemiological Trends Strongly

Suggest Exposures as Etiologic Agents in the Pathogenesis of Sporadic Alzheimer’s Disease, Diabetes Mellitus, and Non-Alcoholic Steatohepatitis. J Alzheimers Dis JAD.

2009;17(3):519-529. doi:10.3233/JAD-2009-1070

26. Khambadkone SG, Cordner ZA, Dickerson F, et al. Nitrated meat products are associated with mania in humans and altered behavior and brain gene expression in rats. Mol Psychiatry. 2020;25(3):560-571. doi:10.1038/s41380-018-0105-6

27. Tong M, Neusner A, Longato L, Lawton M, Wands JR, de la Monte SM. Nitrosamine

Exposure Causes Insulin Resistance Diseases: Relevance to Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus, Non- Alcoholic Steatohepatitis, and Alzheimer’s Disease. J Alzheimers Dis JAD. 2009;17(4):827-844.

28. Presley TD, Morgan AR, Bechtold E, et al. Acute effect of a high nitrate diet on brain perfusion in older adults. Nitric Oxide. 2011;24(1):34-42. doi:10.1016/j.niox.2010.10.002

© 2020, Alzheimer’s – The Science of Prevention 13

David Perlmutter, MD, The Empowering Neurologisy