In a new study, researchers found that it may not only be what foods you eat, but what foods you eat together that may be associated with your risk of dementia.
They looked at “food networks” and found that people whose diets consisted mostly of highly-processed meats, starchy foods like potatoes, and snacks like cookies and cakes, were more likely to have dementia years later than people who ate a wider variety of healthy foods.
The research was conducted by a team at the University of Bordeaux in France.
There is a complex inter-connectedness 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.
Previous studies have shown that eating a healthier diet, for example, a diet rich in green leafy vegetables, berries, nuts, whole grains, and fish, may lower a person’s risk of dementia.
Many of those studies focused on the quantity and frequency of foods.
This study went one step further to look at food networks and found important differences in the ways in which food items were co-consumed in people who went on to develop dementia and those who did not.
The study involved 209 people with an average age of 78 who had dementia and 418 people who did not have dementia.
Participants had completed a food questionnaire five years previously describing what types of food they ate over the year, and how frequently, from less than once a month to more than four times a day.
Researchers used the data from the food questionnaire to compare what foods were often eaten together by the patients with and without dementia.
They found while there were few differences in the number of individual foods that people ate, overall food groups or networks differed substantially between people who had dementia and those who did not have dementia.
For example, processed meats were a “hub” in the food networks of people with dementia.
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.
This may suggest that frequency with which processed meat is combined with other unhealthy foods, rather than average quantity, may be important for dementia risk.
For example, 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.
Overall, people who did not have dementia were more likely to have a lot of diversity in their diet, demonstrated by many small food networks that usually included healthier foods, such as fruit and vegetables, seafood, poultry or meats.
The team found that more diversity in diet, and greater inclusion of a variety of healthy foods, is related to less dementia.
The differences in food networks that could be seen years before people with dementia were diagnosed.
These findings suggest that studying diet by looking at food networks may help untangle the complexity of diet and biology in health and disease.
The lead author of the study is Cécilia Samieri, Ph.D. from the University of Bordeaux in France.
The study is published in Neurology.
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