The Impact Of Highly Processed Foods On The Brain

Apr 28th 2020

The Impact Of Highly Processed Foods On The Brain

Article at a glance

  • We live in an age of super-sized super-fast foods loaded with artificial flavours and added sugars, and while many know this is bad for the waistline, they might not realize it is also bad for the brain.
  • Added sugar has been found to stimulate regions of the brain associated with reward and craving and meets the criteria to be considered addictive
  • Excessive sugar intake can impair memory, decrease neuroplasticity, and increase the risk for mood disorders.
  • Proven ways to help silence that sweet tooth and protect your brain include eating naturally sweet foods like fruit; avoiding triggers; exercising; eating more protein; getting adequate sleep; and practicing stress management.

Obesity is the biggest healthcare concern since the end of the Second World War. While investigators continue to question what changed to allow for this significant rise in obesity in a relatively short period of time, a common theory that continues to emerge is the increased availability and consumption of highly processed and highly palatable foods. We live in an age of super-sized super-fast food with increased amounts of artificial flavors and added sugars. Most know that too much added sugar is bad for the waistline, but many don't realize the harmful effects sugar has on our brain.

Sugar has earned a complicated reputation when it comes to one's health and it's important to understand the difference between natural sugars and added sugars. While sugar can occur naturally in foods that contain carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, these natural foods also contain additional nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals. This allows for slow digestion and a steady supply of healthy nutrients to the body. Problems seem to occur, though, when too much added sugar (sugar that food manufacturers add to products to increase flavor or extend shelf life) is consumed.

Even though the brain uses sugar (glucose) as its primary source of fuel, more is not always better. Research has demonstrated that high glycemic foods (foods that are often processed and cause a rapid increase in blood sugar) selectively stimulate the brain regions associated with reward and craving by influencing "feel good" chemicals such as dopamine. The reward stimulation of intense sweetness has even been found to surpass that of cocaine. When tested by experts, sugar meets the criteria in the DSM-5, a tool used to diagnose substance abuse disorder. It induces brain changes that resemble drugs of abuse, confirming that too much sugar can be addictive.

From a brain health perspective, excessive sugar intake has been found to impair memory performance and is linked to increased risk for mood disorders. Additional research shows that a diet high in added sugar reduces brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BNDF), a naturally occurring protein that is essential for brain function and performance.

Over history, our access to food has changed dramatically along with the types of foods being consumed, from natural to highly processed. To support our health and our brain, The American Heart Association suggests that people consume less than 150 calories from added sugar per day. Here are six tips to help silence your sweet tooth in the meantime:

  1. Eat a piece of fruit. Curb cravings with naturally sweetened foods like fruits (that also give you healthful nutrients).
  2. Avoid triggers. Notice the times, places, or activities that lead to sweet cravings and rework your day to avoid those triggers altogether. It can start by changing your environmental setting.
  3. Exercise. Exercise can release some of those "feel good" hormones too!
  4. Eat more protein throughout the day. Protein stimulates the feeling of fullness and satiety.
  5. Get 7-9 hours of sleep. Sleep will not only help curb those cravings, but it will also help decrease the risk for dementia and Alzheimer's Disease as well.
  6. Practice stress management. Avoiding stress can help prevent sweet cravings. Are you meditating for at least 10 minutes a day?

By incorporating these tips into your daily routine, you will be able to kick those cravings to the curb. Remember, a diet less in highly processed sugary foods can do wonders for overall brain health and function.

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