Could it be that our Western-style diet laden with saturated fats, added sugars, and processed grains could actually impair our brain functions while weighing us down with a tendency to continuously over-indulge?
According to researchers, this is very much the case. Gluttonous diets in the West could transform otherwise healthy and slim young people into mildly scatter-brained overeaters.
The new study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, is among the first studies looking into how the Western diet impairs memory and appetite control in humans.
The results of the research are shocking and show how high-fat, high-sugar diets caused volunteers to perform worse on memory tests while nursing a continuous craving for junk food even after they had finished a meal. In fact, the desire for junk food only grew after they had eaten the meal.
The research suggests that self-control in regards to food consumption is harder for those who cling to a Euro-American or Western diet, with the array of foods involved in the diet causing havoc for the hippocampus—the part of the brain which regulates memory and appetite control.
Richard Stevenson, study co-author and psychology professor Macquarie University in Sydney, told the Guardian:
“After a week on a Western-style diet, palatable food such as snacks and chocolate becomes more desirable when you are full.
This will make it harder to resist, leading you to eat more, which in turn generates more damage to the hippocampus and a vicious cycle of overeating.”
To investigate the Western diet’s impact on humans, researchers recruited 110 participants aged 20-23 who were generally lean and healthy and stuck to a good diet. The group was split into one control group that ate their normal diet for a week, while the other team was assigned a calorie-heavy western-style diet filled to the brim with fast food and Belgian waffles.
At the beginning and end of the week both groups ate a breakfast in the lab that was bookended by word memory tests and rating how much they enjoy sugary foods like Froot Loops and Coco Pops, as well as how much they want to continue eating them.
Prof. Stevenson noted that their findings suggest the disruption of the hippocampus by the foods. He added:
“The more desirable people find the palatable food when full, following the Western-style diet, the more impaired they were on the test of hippocampal function.”
Continuing, Stevenson explained that when the hippocampus isn’t functioning to its full capacity, memories flood the brain which makes food more appealing than it should be—even when our bellies are full. The findings echo earlier research done on animals which showed junk food’s ability to impair the hippocampus.
While there is no concrete reason as to why this is the case, the hippocampus is known to block out or blur our memories and daydreams about tasty food when we are full.
Scientists now fear that the subtle impairments caused by our sugary, processed diets could lead to long-term effects including increased tendencies toward obesity and diabetes, both of which have been linked to dementia and cognitive decline.
Stevenson feels that in light of the findings, governments are likely to find themselves in a position to control the unrestricted consumption of junk food as a simple matter of public safety—not unlike government attempts to restrict the smoking of tobacco.
“Demonstrating that processed foods can lead to subtle cognitive impairments that affect appetite and serve to promote overeating in otherwise healthy young people should be a worrying finding for everyone.”