The Remarkable Effect of This On the Brain

The Remarkable Effect of This Diet on the Brain

It’s no secret that a diet high in fat can cause trouble to the body, but new research has discovered that the brain can also get caught up in the mess. 

One of the ways the brain keeps prime performance is through the work of the immune cells. They bustle around the brain like scavengers, getting rid of damaged cells or infectious agents in the brain. 

These immune cells are important for healthy brain function, but when a diet is so high in fat as to cause obesity, they stop bustling and start eating the connections between neurons. 

Too much fat in the body seems to cause chronic inflammation, which triggers these immune cells to have an autoimmune response. They stop mopping up toxins and instead turn on their own healthy brain cells. The fallout from this includes a reduced capacity to learn as efficiently.

According to researcher and neuroscientist Dr Alexis M. Stranahan, immune cells ‘eating synapses is contributing to synapse loss and cognitive impairment in obesity.’

It’s a scary prospect, but the damage is completely reversible. Changing to a low-fat diet for two months can reverse the damage completely and restore healthy cognitive function.

The research was conducted using two groups of male mice. (Mice are commonly used in research for their  biological and genetic similarity to humans.) One group ate a diet that was 10% fat, the other group ate a diet that was 60% fat. The human version of these diets would be along the lines of a healthy diet versus a fast-food diet.

After eight weeks, the mice on the high-fat diet were fatter – no surprises there – but they were similar to the mice in the low-fat group in terms of brain changes and other physiological measures.

At 12 weeks, the differences between the groups started to show themselves. The high fat mice were obese and there was evidence of reduced brain function.

At this point, half the mice in the high fat group were then placed on the low-fat diet. After about two months, their weight returned to normal, but they had a larger fat pad than their peers, making them a little more vulnerable to weight gain in the future.

The mice that remained on the high fat diet continued to get fatter, and the scavenger cells and neurons in their brain continued to wither.

As explained by Stranahan, ‘Instead of doing garbage disposal, they are taking your mailbox, your front door, your kitchen sink and all the stuff that you need, and not doing their job of getting rid of trash.’

This research is compelling and is further evidence of the way the body and mind are deeply connected. The health of the body will ultimately affect the health of the mind. Obesity is stealing people from the lives they deserve to be living and from the people who love them. What we now know is that it is also stealing the capacity for people to learn and grow and reach their fullest potential. That affects all of us.

Food is meant to be fun, and it’s important to remember that the effect of fat on the brain uncovered by this research didn’t start to emerge until the point of obesity. In the same way that any unhealthy relationship – with people, work, exercise , anything – will cause problems, an unhealthy relationship will food will also bring us undone. The good news it that this is completely reversible. It’s not often we have the problem and the easy solution in one easy package. Thanks science.

11 Comments

Helen

Love this site! The articles are articulate and explained very clearly. Very relevant to the reality of parenthood, especially when we all have our own baggage from our own upbringing.
These articles serves as a kind reminder to be mindful. Thank you.

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Laura Wolford

This goes against everything that I am reading that fat is actually incredibly beneficial for the brain. Of course not all fats are created equal and there are definitely good fats like fish oil, and pasture butter, and coconut oil and bad fats such as the unstable fats industrialized seed oils and hydrogenated oils (that we were told were healthy). See Dr. David Perlmutter ‘s book Brain Maker.

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Hey Sigmund

Some fats are really healthy and essential for brain health, in particular the fats found in oily fish like salmon, walnuts and the other foods you refer to. You’ll see from the article that the study is referring to fat of the type and quantity that leads to obesity.

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Jane

Could you put a copy or link to the Research article for further reading. I would like a clearer understanding of the diet that was used.

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MINDA CALDWELL

I have spoken about this to all my “college” students. I found out that for them, the taste is ” stronger” than “quality and nutrition” in food. So they go for the “taste.”

Disappointing, especially when people are intelligent but still make decisions based on their “emotions” rather than wisdom.

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Hey Sigmund

Yes, absolutely. The problem is that the things that are being added to our food for taste are all sorts of unhealthy, and we probably don’t know the extent of what they can do. If this is what excessive fat does to the brain, we can only wonder what other things are doing. I expect we’ll see some interesting research on this.

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Terrie

How does high sugar affect the brain?

Although many foods are “low fat”, they are LOADED with either high fructose sugar or artificial sweeteners.

Sugar causes weight gain too, but is it a different type of fat from that of “high” fat foods? Is the affect on the brain the same using sweeteners the same?

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Hey Sigmund

You’re absolutely right. Our food is loaded with so many things other than fat that cause weight gain. This research specifically looked at the effect of high fat on the brain, so the results are specific to that. It’s early days and there will no doubt be more research to come. I expect that future lines of research will explore the effects of other things, such as sugar, on the brain. It will be really interesting to see what we learn from this.

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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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