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Can We Talk Fat and Sugar, PLEASE?

Too much sugar and fat is affecting your brain too - not just your belly. By Terry Davidson, American University | Photo Credit: novelrobinson, CC BY-NC-SA

So, do I only eat when I'm actually hungry? The answer is yes but sometimes, no, if I'm being truly honest. How would you answer this question? If you answer, solely, yes, then I'm sorry, I don't believe you. What about when you're bored. Ooo, or how about when you're stressed? What about depressed/sad? Don't tell me you don't want to nibble just by seeing something that looks or smells good. If you said, "well yes" to any of these, then you're in good company and the growth is in having the knowledge and then deciding what you want to do with it.

Now check this out, many of us eat even when our bodies don’t need food. Just the thought of food entices us to eat. We think about food when we see other people eating, when we pass a favorite fast-food restaurant, when we see a scrumptious snack near the check-out at a convenience store. Is this resonating at all? Please nod your head, yes (even though I can't see you). In addition, we’re the targets of sophisticated advertising techniques designed to keep thoughts of food and the pleasures of eating almost constantly in our minds.

Obviously, overeating unhealthy foods can lead to overweight. But looking beyond direct effects on expanding waistlines, lab studies show how mental functioning is related to diet (ugh, I hate the word diet). A troubling link was found between a fat-rich diet common in the West and brain-related ailments that can actually impair our ability to avoid overeating.

Now I'm about to go all geeky on you by going deep with this research I'm about to spill so stay with me, OKAY?!!! Okay! Here we go!!

Messages to eat are all around us. | Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk, CC BY-NC

Fatter and Fatter

Many scientists believe that societal factors, such as advertising, have combined to create an environment in which the temptations to eat have overwhelmed our body’s natural biological ability to control what and how much we consume. The result is that in the United States, two-thirds of adults, and more than one third of children and adolescents, are now overweight or obese. This trend is spreading to other countries all over the world. Even worse, diseases that are associated with excess body weight – such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems – are also becoming more prevalent.

At the core of the problem is the fact that many of the foods we can’t seem to resist are unhealthy. Some of the most attractive and popular foods in our current environment contain high amounts of saturated fats – high levels are found in red meats and dairy products like ice cream and butter. This type of diet is consumed by so many people in the US and other western societies that it is often called the “western diet.” No wonder obesity has become such a problem.

Beyond Bellies to Brains

Over the past several years, many scientists have reported that consuming a western diet and gaining excess body weight may have harmful effects on the brains of both human and nonhuman animals. For example, some research suggests that middle-aged adults who are overweight and obese are at greater risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease and other types of late-life cognitive dementias compared to people of normal weight. The results of other studies suggest that even children as young as seven years of age may suffer certain types of memory impairments as a consequence of consuming too much of a western diet and accumulating too much body fat.

Much information about the nature of the effects of western diets on the brain comes from studies with rats and mice. Research in one lab and elsewhere has repeatedly shown that feeding rats a diet with levels of saturated fat and sugar much like those in the human western diet weakens the blood-brain barrier (BBB). The BBB is a system of cells and membranes that form tight junctions to prevent harmful agents that circulate in the bloodstream from entering the brain. Feeding rats a western-style diet weakens those tight junctions and thereby allows potentially harmful substances to pass into the brain.

Healthy tight junctions keep substances in the bloodstream from diffusing into the brain. | Photo Credit: Chrejsa, CC BY-NC-SA

To determine which areas of the brain are most vulnerable to the ill-effects of a leaky BBB, they infuse a small amount of dye into the bloodstream of a rat and measure areas of the brain where the dye accumulates. In overweight rats fed a western-style diet, the dye appears to collect preferentially in the hippocampus, a brain structure involved with important learning and memory functions. As an apparent response to the accumulation of such intruding substances, the hippocampus becomes inflamed and its electrochemical activity changes. Rats that suffer these consequences also show deficits in their ability to use certain types of information processed by the hippocampus.

A Vicious Cycle

Do these deficits have anything to do with our ability to resist eating high-fat and sugary foods? It is thought that they do. One type of information that is processed by the hippocampus takes the form of internal physiological signals about one’s need for food. Rats and people who have sustained damage to their hippocampus appear to have difficulty using those internal signals to tell whether or not they’ve had enough to eat or drink. In the presence of powerful cues in the environment that entice you to eat, a reduced ability to use information from your body that tells you that you don’t need food can lead to overeating.

The result could be a vicious cycle in which eating a western diet produces hippocampal dysfunction which weakens the ability to use internal cues to counter eating elicited by cues in the environment. This could lead to progressively more eating of western diet based on progressively greater deterioration of hippocampal function. As the hippocampus becomes more and more impaired, the severity and scope of learning and memory deficits would also increase. The result could be not only obesity but also more serious cognitive decline.

How to break this feedback loop is an important research question. Maybe the answer will be to find ways to protect and strengthen the BBB against the bad effects of western diet. Maybe it will be in finding ways to make the western diet less damaging. But until other answers are found, the only protection we have is knowing that an excessive intake of a western diet may harm both our physical and mental well-being.

Yikes! Okay Now What?

That was a lot to take in, I know! But so important to have some curated info and foundational knowledge. But now that you have it, what will you decide to do with it? How do you want your drink (soda) and fries? Regular or supersized? Think carefully about that. LOL! Where are there areas in your eating habits that you can change? Alternatively, if you feel you don't overeat or eat pretty healthy, but it would be even better if you developed this new habit of X, what would that new habit be for you that you could start working on this year? If you read last week's blog that is just in time for holiday eating, then you know that I shared how to Honor Your Fullness. This gets to not overeating, if this is something you do.

Here's a different example of replacing an old/bad habit with a new/healthy one. A couple of years back, I decided to give up sugars in candy. I had previously given up white sugar. I stopped cooking with it or drinking it in my coffee (I don't drink much coffee) and tea. For me, I just went cold turkey in 2016 and since then, I have, not once, added it in and it felt great just to do that. As a result, I developed a sensitivity to sweets where drinks became too sweet that I couldn't drink them. I fully gave up juice, soda products, lemonade. Anything with sugar in it. Only water satisfies me and that's what I've replaced juice, soda products, lemonade with. It was amazing to know I could alter my taste buds and preferences so drastically as well as heal my damaged hippocampus!

Fast forward to December 1, 2020. I decided I was going to give up eating candy (my achilles heel (weakness)) cold turkey. Now this was a real challenge for me. Can you say "SUGAR! SUGAR! SUGAR! PURE SUGAR in your mouth SUGAR?!" Yep, eating candy was my thang. It made me happy!!!!! Growing up, me and my mom would go to the candy store and load up and just enjoy eating it while watching a movie. I loved all sugary kinds. It didn't matter, if I saw candy, I ate it; especially Haribo Gummy Bears! My favorite! If I craved it, I fulfilled that craving. I didn't care, I had to have my candy. I even posted a video on July 31, 2020 showing the candy I had just bought from the Dollar Tree Store and the location of my candy stash that was in my night stand. It looked like a little candy store. I titled the video "Confessions of a Life Coach" (click highlighted title to watch video). And I had no shame in posting it because it was where I was at the time. I had tried giving it up for a little while the year prior and "couldn't." This time I fully committed, mentally first, and began "the give up" on December 1st of the same year. What I soon noticed after was that my face stopped breaking out with pimples. Yes, candy was giving me acne. Obviously, given what is in it. I no longer had the cravings after some time. I would look at candy, and the urge wouldn't present itself. I could take my boys to the Dollar Tree Store and pass the candy aisle without putting any in my basket/cart. I could do candy filled Easter egg hunts for the boys and see all their candy from Halloween and not touch a piece even when I hid the candy away so they wouldn't eat it all. I've still got candy hidden place that I need to throw away. I was just fine not touching it because I DIDN'T WANT IT! YESSSZZZZ! Once again, I healed my hippocampus because it was properly firing my internal physiological signals without difficulty and telling me I did not need it! Hold up, let me back up a sentence because the first time I tested eating one piece of candy (just to see) was actually this past Easter. I put one jellybean in my mouth, and it was too sweet. I was not happy and that told me "I really did kick this thing." I tested again this May with one piece of a white and green gummy frog my son was eating; just to see how it tasted. I didn't like it. Again, too sweet! Beyond that, it tasted nasty to me! I couldn't believe it. I had once again altered my taste buds/preferences too!!!! Woo hoo!!! I had researched that this was a fact and had now realized it for the second time; 1st through drinks, and now through sweets/candy.

Giving up candy was not something I thought "I could do." That wasn't true but rather a limiting belief. I just didn't really want to do it before and didn't truly understand the new benefits until I experienced them which have improved my skin, taste preferences, and overall health including my weight! Those calories add up. So, what did I replace it with? I started eating ginger chews. Sweet but not too sweet and healthy for you. So, while I went cold turkey on the candy, I helped by replacing it with something just as satisfying yet healthy. I also eat more fruits and yogurt when I want something a little sweet. It's about finding alternative solutions! And I'm not recommending/suggesting you give up something cold turkey. Of course, you should experiment and do what will work best for you by testing and learning. For me, I needed to just fully commit like I did with the sugar in my cooking and drinks and give up candy cold turkey too because I really wanted the change. I was ready and it was the best way to approach it, for me!!! The key was finding the alternative. So, what can you say you're ready for?

I hope this helps as you start to think of options for even better health. If anything, I've shared resonated with you or you have blog topic recommendations, I welcome you to leave a comment below or reach out to me for a free consultation to get help in an area of your life or a change/transformation you want to begin next year!

Terry Davidson, Director of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience and Professor of Psychology, American University and Camille Sample, PhD Student in Behavioral and Neural Homeostasis, American University

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