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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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