Our brains take up only 2% of our body mass, yet consume 20% of our energy. When working in high-pressure jobs with challenging mental tasks, the brain’s nutritional demands are even greater. There’s no magic pill that will make you a great thinker. However, some easy diet changes can improve your brain health and optimize your brain’s abilities.
We’re bombarded with dieticians food recommendations for a healthy body, but what about our brains? Often, we neglect the importance of good food to optimize our working performance.
Overeating, poor memories, depression, learning disorders – all have been in linked in recent studies to an overconsumption of sugar. And these connections point to a problem that is only beginning to be better understood: what our chronic consumption of sugar is doing to our brains.
A study at Yale University interviewed a diverse group of 1,649 middle school students regarding their consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and symptoms of hyperactivity and inattention. The study found that for every sweetened drink consumed, the young teens’ risk of hyperactivity and inattention increased by 14%, even when taking into account overall sugary food consumption. It also showed that middle school kids who heavily consumed sweetened energy drinks are 66% more likely to be at risk for hyperactivity and inattention symptoms .
Other studies focus on sugar’s role in overeating. We know that sugar and obesity are linked, but the exact mechanism has not been understood until recently. A study at the Minesotta obesity centre found chronic consumption of sugar dulls the brain’s mechanism to tell you that you are full . It does so by reducing activity in the brain’s anorexigenic oxytocin system, which is responsible for throwing up the red flag that prevents you from gorging. When oxytocin cells in the brain are blunted by overconsumption of sugar, the flag doesn’t work correctly, and you start asking for seconds and thirds.
Recently, Dr Laura Ekblad of the University of Turku in Finland found that women with insulin resistance, a clinical sign for type 2 diabetes, perform worse in language tests and may have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease . Women are two times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than men, and with over 50 million Americans diagnosed with a metabolic disorder such as pre-diabetes, and 21% of Americans aged 12-19 were obese in 2012, many people’s brains are being affected by over consumption of sugar.
High Fat Diet
We often hear the negative effects of a high-fat diet:
The more fatty foods we consume, the more we put ourselves at risk for chronic diseases such as obesity and heart disease. But high-fat foods threaten our brains too.
Researchers at the Oregon National Primate Research Centre in Beaverton, Oregon, found that baby monkeys exposed to a high-fat diet in the womb were born with fewer dopamine fibers and receptors in a brain region called the prefrontal cortex . Because dopamine helps stabilize the brain’s food-reward pathways, these monkeys grew up craving more flavorful, high-fat, high-calorie foods to satiate their appetite, says Dr Heidi Rivera, a researcher at the centre. As a result of this behavior change, the monkeys built up excess fat tissue early in life, and such fat is difficult to shed later on in life. If we are exposed to high fat foods in infancy, we naturally crave these foods later in life – increasing our risk of obesity and slowing down our brains.
In a similar study at Yale University, researchers found that a mother’s high-fat diet triggers brain inflammation in the developing fetus, leading to anxiety and hyperactivity in the offspring. This supports observations in humans that obesity in pregnancy is associated with childhood attention deficit disorder (ADHD), says Dr. Staci Bilbo of Duke University, who led the study.
A Balance Diet is Key
The research shows that a healthy diet that is low in fat and refined carbohydrates, but high in fruit, vegetables and lean protein is essential for good brain health. If you want to be a NASA astronaut, be considered for that promotion, or avoid getting dementia in old age, fuel your body with healthy food today. Your brain will thank you now and twenty years down the line.
 Schwartz, D., Gilstad-Hayden, K, Carroll-Scott, A., Grilo, S., McCaslin, C., Schwartz, M., Ickovics, J. (2015) Energy drinks and youth self-reported hyperactivity/inattention symptoms. Academy of Pediatrics (3): 297-304.
 Mitra, A., Gosnell, B., Schiöth, H., Grace, M., Klockars, A., Olszewski, P., Levine, A. (2011) Chronic intake dampens feeding-related activity of neurons synthesizing a satiety mediator, oxytocin. Peptides, 31(7), 1346-1352.
 Ekbladd, L., Rinne, J., Puukka, P., Laine, H., Ahtiluoto, S., Salkava, R., Viitanen, M. & Jula, A. (2015) Insulin resistance is associated with poorer verbal fluency performance in women. Diabetologia.
 Rivera, H., Christiansen, K., Sullivan, E. (2015) The role of maternal obesity in the risk fo neuropsychiatric disorders. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 9,doi: 10.3389/fnins.2015.00194