“You are what you eat.” It’s a well-known fact, but considering unhealthy food is/can be a drug and much of what we consume on a daily basis is highly addictive, it’s a tough saying to live by.
Many westerners struggle with sugar addiction, caffeine addiction, and addiction to the chemicals and preservatives in the majority of our foods. Some of the major links between the brain and unhealthy food include:
- Increased risk of dementia
- Lack of hormone response in the brain
- The brain struggling to store memories
- Lack of cognitive function
- A smaller hippocampus
Junk food is easily accessible and often more convenient and affordable than healthier options. That’s been one of the leading factors behind the obesity epidemic, but obesity—now a genuine disease—affect a lot more than your physical health. Research has shown that unhealthy food makes insulin levels spike, which can ultimately impact the brain.
Unhealthy Food and Dementia
Numerous studies have shown that a diet of junk food is connected to a higher risk of dementia. It’s thought that this link is due to cholesterol levels and blood pressure changing the brain’s blood supply.
However, the latest research from Brown University reports that these shifts in cholesterol and blood pressure can keep the brain from answering to hormones at all, which shifts our capacity to think and store memories. According to Dr. Suzanne del Monte, one of the lead researchers of the study, blocking insulin from the brains of rats led to confusion. Rats that could previously make their out of a maze failed, and she says the results in a human is akin with dementia. It mimicked Alzheimer’s disease, complete with the spike in amyloid plaque, a key marker of the disease.
Obesity and Cognitive Function
A diet of unhealthy food was also looked at closely at the yearly meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. Researchers found that what people eat is directly linked to what and how they think. Obesity plays a role in cognitive function, with studies showing that the more overweight a person is, the longer they need to complete a task based on decisions.
Studies also found that for those that are hungry, the pleasure-seeking part of the brain gets activated when they see images of high-calorie foods. That’s why skipping breakfast means most people consume a bigger lunch. This flies in the face of the current trend of considering fasting as a good way to lose weight.
At the conference, the researchers also discussed the link between insulin receptors and high sugar diets. It’s been found that high-sugar diets impact spatial learning. However, there is some evidence that a high-sugar diet can be counteracted with a supplement of omega-3, which isn’t often found naturally in typical American diets.
It’s All in Your Head
Scientists at Deakin University, in collaboration with Australian National University, have found that the hippocampus in the brain is generally smaller in those with an unhealthy diet. The hippocampus is charged with overall mental health and learning.
The teams scanned a number of hippocampi in those ages 60 – 64 with an MRI and published their findings in BMC Medicine. According to one of the researchers, mental disorders are the leading cause for disability claims on a global scale—and that includes dementia.
She points out that a poor diet is just one aspect of a bad lifestyle choice that can impact the brain. Lack of exercise and smoking or alcohol abuse also play a role. Together, these bad habits can exacerbate poor cognitive ability for those managing heart disease. Smokers have the worst memory of all unhealthy food eaters, and both smoking and diabetes (worsened with junk food) can lead to lower cognitive functioning.
Researcher Terry Davidson at the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience at American University also undertook a rat-based study to learn more about memory. He found that rats with damage to the hippocampus seemed to pick up food most often, but they would only take a nibble before dropping the food.
Ultimately, Davidson found that these rates couldn’t tell when they were full. A similar reaction can happen in humans with a high-sugar and fat diet, according to Davidson. A diet of unhealthy food and brain damage go hand in hand. He compares his findings to a 2015 Journal of Pediatrics study that suggested obese children did less well on memory tests than their healthy-weight counterparts.
At the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience, a 2017 study found that those who are obese have less white matter in the brain than others. In other words, it’s like their brains are a decade older than they really are. Obesity is also connected to inflammation, which affects many aspects of the body including the brain.
University of Cambridge psychologist Lucy Cheke has looked into ways to prevent obesity, and its related brain damage, altogether. She asked obese participants and lean participants to take part in a treasure chest hunt memory game. After finding that obese participants did around 18 percent worse, she knew obesity is directly linked to spatial and temporal function—critical for memory. It turns out that diet is key, as is weight control.
Something as minor as changing your diet a little or adding a natural supplement can make a world of difference to how you feel (and even look). Remember that your brain is depending on you to treat it right. Unhealthy food along with everything else you ingest is going to make an appearance at every part of your system, including your brain. Be a little kinder, consider its needs, and eat with intention.