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28th February 2014

Saving our Bacon?

Slices of smoked baconWhilst the cure for Alzheimer’s disease remains a distant hope, preventative strategies are important and studies with findings that may help to reduce the burden of dementia in society are of interest.

Alzheimer’s disease, meat and dietary AGEs

This week a small study on mice was widely reported by the media suggesting that cooked meat is linked to increased dementia risk. This study looked at potentially damaging compounds known as advanced glycation end products, AGEs, and their association with the development of Alzheimer’s disease. AGEs exist in small amounts normally in the body, but are also consumed through food.

Animal derived foods that are high in protein and fat typically contain high levels of AGEs, and these increase when food is cooked at high temperatures, like meat that is barbecued, grilled or fried.

The researchers found that older mice fed a high AGEs diet, experienced increased levels of beta-amyloid protein, the protein involved in the development of Alzheimer’s disease through the formation of amyloid plaques in the brain, and developed motor and cognitive impairment. Mice fed a low AGEs diet did not display these changes. In addition, in a small study of 90 healthy older humans, the authors reported that individuals with high blood levels of AGEs developed some cognitive decline.

Despite these changes the authors could not conclude that the mice had developed the equivalent of human dementia, and there was also not a single diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia in the human part of the study.

A mouse is not a human

This paper simply does not show that a diet high in AGEs causes Alzheimer’s disease; much more work is needed to clarify how these compounds might affect the human brain. It remains unknown as to whether swapping cooking techniques or cutting down on AGEs will reduce risk.

In fact, the only conclusive message we can take from the study is that a diet high in AGEs seems to have a poor health effect in mice, but findings from mice simply cannot be applied to humans. Larger, well-controlled studies in humans would be needed to identify a direct correlation between dietary AGEs and cognitive decline.

Changing AGEs in the diet

But those concerned with dementia don't have to wait for larger studies to make dietary changes. A diet relatively low in AGEs would reflect healthy eating advice; for example it would consist of a more plant based diet, high in fruits and vegetables, low fat dairy products, whole grains, fish and legumes. And if you like, why not try cooking some of your meat with more liquids at lower temperatures as in braising and stewing.

So you can save your bacon but eat it in moderation with plenty of veg!

*All information is correct at the time of publishing. Use of this material is subject to your acceptance of our terms and conditions.

Ayela Spiro

Nutrition Science Manager, British Nutrition Foundation

Ayela is a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, where her role involves providing expert advice on nutrition and health issues to a number of key audiences including consumers, health professionals, charities, the media and the food industry. At the heart of her work is the communication of nutrition science that promotes understanding of nutrition and health and contributes to the improved wellbeing of all.

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