Yikes! What the Standard American Diet is Doing to Your Brain
Did you know that consuming a Standard American Diet (SAD) for just one week deteriorates brain function and increases your desire to munch on junk food? That’s what researchers discovered in a 2020 study published in Royal Society Open Science. For this trial, volunteers spent one week splurging on high-fat foods and sweet treats with high amounts of added sugar. The SAD diet led to worse performance on memory tests and an increased desire to overeat junk food after they had finished consuming a meal.
The researchers suggest that the typical western diet—think high-glycemic foods like waffles and high-fat fare like milkshakes—rapidly impairs function in the region of the brain called the hippocampus. One of the brain’s major memory centers, the hippocampus is also involved in appetite regulation. Dysfunction in this area is associated with memory issues and troubles with appetite control.
For this study, the scientists enlisted 110 healthy, lean young adults ages 20-23 and divided them into 2 groups. One group indulged in a high-calorie western-style breakfast while a control group ate a healthy breakfast. At the beginning and end of the trial, both groups also performed tests that assessed word learning, visual memory, and episodic memory. They also rated their cravings and enjoyment of high-sugar fare, such as Fruit Loops and Coco Pops. The people who found the junk food the tastiest performed the worst on the memory tests.
This study is just one of many that are pointing to the strong relationship between what you put in your mouth and the moment-by-moment functioning of your brain. It all leads to a vicious cycle—eat junk food, impair hippocampus function and appetite control, crave more junk food, further impair brain function, and so on. It helps explain why the SAD diet is contributing to the overweight and obesity epidemic in America where approximately 70% of the population is overweight and 40% fall into the obese category.
Fat on the Brain
Excess fat on the body further impairs brain function. An analysis of brain SPECT scans of 20,000 psychiatric patients at Amen Clinics found that as their weight went up, the physical functioning of their brain went down. Research shows that obesity is also associated with a greater risk of depression, bipolar disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia (fear of going out), and addictions. These issues typically increase the likelihood of poor eating habits, which creates a downward spiral.
High blood sugar levels, associated with diabetes and pre-diabetes which affect over 100 million Americans, are often a result of eating a western diet over time and are associated with a smaller hippocampus and memory problems. Scientists have identified evidence linking abnormal insulin levels, a hallmark of diabetes, to Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline. The correlation is so strong that some researchers have labeled Alzheimer’s “type 3 diabetes.”
Enhancing the Food-Brain Connection
Even if you’ve been eating a western diet your whole life, there is hope. Although the vast majority of the research on food and the brain centers on how eating junk food leads to a junk food brain, other evidence shows that it’s never too late to start fueling your brain with healthy foods that boost brain function.
An Amen Clinics brain imaging study on 30 retired NFL football players found that after 6 weeks of following an overall brain health program that included eating a healthy diet, 80% of the players’ brain scans showed improvement in blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, as well as significant improvements in overall cognitive functioning, processing speed, attention, reasoning, and memory.
One of the easiest things you can do to enhance brain function is to identify 25 brain healthy foods you love that love you back and make them the mainstay of your meals.
At Amen Clinics, we take a unique brain-body approach to diagnosis and treatment that includes brain SPECT imaging, as well as laboratory testing to check physical health, weight and diet assessments, and other important factors that could be contributing to symptoms. By getting to the root cause of your symptoms, we can create a more effective, personalized treatment plan for you.
If you want to join the tens of thousands of people who have already enhanced their brain health, overcome their symptoms, and improved their quality of life at Amen Clinics, speak to a specialist today at 888-288-9834. If all our specialists are busy helping others, you can also schedule a time to talk.