We all know that subsisting on cheeseburgers and pizza is bad for our waistlines and our heart health, and we’ve been told from an early age to “Eat your vegetables — or there will be no dessert!” When we consider that two-thirds of Americans are now overweight or obese, the implications of current nutritional research are important to understand — and imperative to communicate. There is already a national dialogue about how unhealthy eating habits can lead to diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, and so on. Now, given recent studies, we must expand this discussion to include how our food choices can change the brain.
The same foods that are detrimental to your body are, likewise, bad for your brain. For starters, sugar can wreak lasting havoc on our neurological functions. A study, published in The Journal of Physiology, determined that animals fed fructose had more difficulty navigating a maze, which is indicative of less learning and poorer memory.
Furthermore, sugar can lead to the formation of free radicals (that is, damaged cells that accelerate aging), which in turn impacts our cognition, memory, and mood. Specifically, it leads to a decline in BDNF levels, a chemical fundamental to memory and learning. According to research published in Peptides, overconsumption of sugar activates the same neural pathways that release dopamine, which is implicated in addiction. “Sugar dulls the brain’s mechanism for telling you to stop eating … by reducing activity in the brain’s anorexigenic oxytocin system,” states this study’s authors.
This is not to say that all sugar is evil — indeed, we need sugars in our blood (that is, glucose) for proper brain functioning. However, we can obtain all that we need from natural sources, such as fruit.
Like sugar, saturated fats (the so-called bad fats) are also harmful to brain health. In a study, published in the Annals of Neurology, of 6,000 women over age 65, it was revealed that those “who ate the most saturated fats had the worst changes in their cognitive function and memory. Women who ate the most monounsaturated fats — such as those found in olive oil, avocados, and nuts — fared the best.” Again, it’s important to remember that not all fat should be avoided. Monosaturated fats (the “good” fats) are required for neuronal formation, myelin sheath production, and improved cognitive power.
While we should avoid added sugar and saturated fats whenever possible, there are other nutrients that we should strive to include in our diet for proper brain functioning. Most notable among these are omega-3 fatty acids, which help learning, memory, and fight against such mental disorders as depression and mood disorders, schizophrenia, and dementia. Research published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience found that children who were given a drink rich in omega-3’s for a year and a half “showed higher scores on tests measuring verbal intelligence and learning and memory” than a control group.
Perhaps most important among these fatty acids is DHA, which “enhances synaptic plasticity,” and which we cannot produce ourselves (that is, we can only obtain it through our diet). And remember BDNF, that important chemical that sugar reduces? Consuming omega-3 fatty acids can counteract these effects, and ultimately protect the brain from age-related memory loss.
B-vitamins are also crucial for cognitive functioning, especially B-12 and folic acid (B-9). Research published in Neurology revealed that people with a vitamin B-12 deficiency were more likely to score lower on cognitive tests and displayed a smaller total brain volume, suggesting that a lack of this vitamin could lead to these cognitive impairments. On the other hand, consuming foods rich in B-12 may help ward off the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Folic acid is important because its deficiency can increase levels of homocysteine, which is associated with stroke, osteoporosis, blood vessel disease, cervical cancer, and even macular degeneration. It can also reduce depression, and slow down the effects of aging in the brain.
Considering the above information, one of the best things you can do for your brain health is to read food labels. Avoid foods with various forms of added sugar and those high in saturated fats. Even better, stick to a diet without labels — salmon, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Your brain will thank you.