3 Studies Link Food Choices to Brain's Functioning

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • You’ve probably heard the terms “food for thought” and “exercising your brain,” but have you ever really considered how your lifestyle choices may affect your brain as well as your body. Three new studies that were presented at the Neuroscience 2012, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world’s largest source of emerging news about brain science and health, shed light on the impact of obesity, breakfast and a high-sugar diet.


    Obesity and the Brain


    In one study out of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to look at the brains of 29 adults. These study participants were healthy, but had Body Mass Index scores that ranged from normal to obese.  The researchers found that the brain images of individuals who were overweight and obese showed hyperconnectivity in brain pathways that have been linked to cognitive functions. This hyperconnectivity suggests that the brain is not communicating efficiently in these pathways. The researchers also found that obese individuals expended more effort when they performed a task requiring complex decision-making skills.

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    “As people put on unhealthy amounts of weight, the body’s energy systems begin to degrade and you can start to see the negative effect on brain circuitry, particularly areas that are important for controlling impulsive behaviors,” said Dr. Timothy Verstynen, the study’s lead author.


    Breakfast and the Brain


    Another study out of London’s Imperial College looked at the importance of eating breakfast. These researchers used multiple magnetic resonance images (MRIs) of 21 student participants. As one part of the study, the participants didn’t eat breakfast prior to the test. On another day, the participants were fed a 750-calorie breakfast before the scan. During both days, the participants were served lunch after the scans were completed.


    The researchers identified a variation in the brain activity in the scan when they showed the fasting participants pictures of high-calorie food. This variation was in the areas of the brain that can affect decisions about the pleasantness and reward value of food. However, this reaction was less strong in the MRIs taken after the participants had eaten breakfast.


    “Through both the participants’ MRI results and observations of how much they ate at lunch, we found ample evidence that fasting made people hungrier and increased the appeal of high-calorie foods and the amount people ate,” said Dr. Tony Goldstone, the study’s lead researcher.


    Sugar and the Brain


    Another study out of the University of California, Los Angeles found that a diet high in sugar may affect insulin receptors in the brain. This animal study found that this type of diet actually dulls spatial learning and memory skills. This is important because high sugar consumption has been linked to the increase in metabolic syndrome, which is a group of obesity-related risk factors that are associated with insulin resistance. While metabolic syndrome has been mostly associated with the body, this study provided important evidence that there could be consequences on brain function. The researchers also found out that omega-3 supplements actually may partially counteract the effects of high levels of sugar on the brain.


  • The Takeaway

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    So what’s the take away for these? I’d suggest that it goes back to what we all have heard from our mothers, but often fail to practice in our own lives. First of all, eat a balanced and healthy diet that limits sugar and bad carbohydrates (think white bread, potatoes and white rice). Make sure you eat a good breakfast because that meal will help you curb cravings for the rest of the day. And try to stay at a healthy weight through diet and exercise so your brain can continue to function optimally.


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    Society for Neuroscience. (2012). This is your brain on food: Studies reveal how diet affects brain functions. Press release.

Published On: October 24, 2012