How Junk food is changing your brain

Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression are on the rise. Our fast-paced, stressful lifestyles are partly to blame but the connection between what we eat and our mental…

Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression are on the rise. Our fast-paced, stressful lifestyles are partly to blame but the connection between what we eat and our mental health, is often overlooked as a culprit.

Junk food is high in sugar, full of empty carbs and sodium, and riddled with preservatives. The nasty side of processed foods are often omitted from us, because they aren’t so pretty. However, when we look at what these ingredients are doing to our brain health, it forces us to reconsider what we eat.

The addiction

Kristina Isouard, BSc, MSc (Nutrition), explains that eating foods that are high in refined sugar, drive you to eat compulsively, “This is due to the decrease in the amount of dopamine D2 receptors. This change is also seen in the brains of people who are addicted to drugs and in people with a BMI in the obese range.”

When we eat a lot of junk food, it creates a new feeling of normal that is never quite satiated, meaning we are continually needing a fix.

Anxiety and depression

Junk food is virtually absent of omega-3 fatty acids. To best obtain the benefits of omega-3, it needs to be absorbed through the foods we eat. If you aren’t getting enough omega-3 in your regular diet, your brain mirrors the symptoms of anxiety.

According to neuroscientist Dr Amy Reichelt, eating junk food reduces the birth of new neurons in the brain. When new neurons aren’t being produced at the rate that they should be, this can cause depression.

Forget me not

Eating junk food increases the amounts of insulin in the brain, which can have some scary side effects. When insulin levels are too high, many cells in your body, such as fat, liver, brain and muscle cells, stop responding to the hormone. If your brain isn’t responding to the insulin hormone, it can cause mood imbalances and can even limit your ability to create new memories.

Dr Suzanne del Monte from Brown University replicated this insulin problem in rats. The rats that were placed in a maze, suffered from confusion and were unable to find the exit. Their brains demonstrated similar patterns of a patient suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

There is hope

Kristina Isouard says “This addiction-like brain change is reversible. When you abstain from processed sugary foods, the level of the dopamine D2 receptor in you brain increase towards normal. Interestingly, this increase has also been reported in people who have lost excess weight. This is why many people who have changed their diet and lost weight end up actually disliking many of the more processed foods they use to eat compulsively.”

Time to fight back

Although the effects of junk food on our brain can be frightening, the good news is that you can work towards reversing it right away. Here are some foods that help boost your brain health and undo the junk-food damage.

  • Walnuts: They’re shaped like a brain, and they help steer you away from diseases such as Alzheimer’s by boosting your vitamin E levels.
  • Fatty fish: Salmon is full of omega-3 fatty acids, giving your brain the boost it needs to improve cognitive function and memory.
  • Blueberries: Bursting with antioxidants, these little blue heros fight free radicals in your brain and protect the brain from stress.
  • Seeds: Full of omega fatty acids and vitamin E, hemp seeds are a simple brain-enhancing food you can sprinkle on everything from yoghurt and granola, to your morning toast, and even ice cream.

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Published: 13/11/18

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