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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Lead with warmth and confidence: ‘Yes I know this feels big, and yes I know you can handle it.’ 

We’re not saying they’ll handle it well, and we’re not dismissing their anxiety. What we’re saying is ‘I know you can handle the discomfort of anxiety.’ 

It’s not our job to relive this discomfort. We’ll want to, but we don’t have to. Our job is to give them the experiences they need (when it’s safe) to let them see that they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. 

This is important, because there will  always be anxiety when they do something brave, new, important, growthful. 

They can feel anxious and do brave. Leading with warmth and confidence is about, ‘Yes, I believe you that this feels bad, and yes, I believe in you.’ When we believe in them, they will follow. So often though, it will start with us.♥️
There are things we do because we love them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel loved because of those things.

Of course our kids know we love them, and we know they love us. But sometimes, they might feel disconnected from that feeling of being ‘loved by’. As parents, we might feel disconnected from the feeling of being ‘appreciated by’.

It’s no coincidence that sometimes their need to feel loved, and our need to feel appreciated collide. This collision won’t sound like crashing metal or breaking concrete. It will sound like anger, frustration, demanding, nagging. 

It will feel like not mattering, resentment, disconnection. It can burst through us like meteors of anger, frustration, irritation, defiance. It can be this way for us and our young ones. (And our adult relationships too.)

We humans have funny ways of saying, ‘I miss you.’

Our ‘I miss you’ might sound like nagging, annoyance, anger. It might feel like resentment, rage, being taken for granted, sadness, loneliness. It might look like being less playful, less delighting in their presence.

Their ‘I miss you’ might look like tantrums, aggression, tears, ignoring, defiant indifference, attention-seeking (attention-needing). It might sound like demands, anger, frustration.

The point is, there are things we do because we love them - cleaning, the laundry, the groceries, cooking. And yes, we want them to be grateful, but feeling grateful and feeling loved are different things. 

Sometimes the things that make them feel loved are so surprising and simple and unexpected - seeking them out for play, micro-connections, the way you touch their hair at bedtime, the sound of your laugh at their jokes, when you delight in their presence (‘Gosh I’ve missed you today!’ Or, ‘I love being your mum so much. I love it better than everything. Even chips. If someone said you can be queen of the universe or Molly’s mum, I’d say ‘Pfft don’t annoy me with your offers of a crown. I’m Molly’s mum and I’ll never love being anything more.’’)

So ask them, ‘What do I do that makes you feel loved?’ If they say ‘When you buy me Lego’, gently guide them away from bought things, and towards what you do for them or with them.♥️
We don’t have to protect them from the discomfort of anxiety. We’ll want to, but we don’t have to.

OAnxiety often feels bigger than them, but it isn’t. This is a wisdom that only comes from experience. The more they sit with their anxiety, the more they will see that they can feel anxious and do brave anyway. Sometimes brave means moving forward. Sometimes it means standing still while the feeling washes away. 

It’s about sharing the space, not getting pushed out of it.

Our job as their adults isn’t to fix the discomfort of anxiety, but to help them recognise that they can handle that discomfort - because it’s going to be there whenever they do something brave, hard , important. When we move them to avoid anxiety, we potentially, inadvertently, also move them to avoid brave, hard, growthful things. 

‘Brave’ rarely feels brave. It will feel jagged and raw. Sometimes fragile and threadbare. Sometimes it will as though it’s breathing fire. But that’s how brave feels sometimes. 

The more they sit with the discomfort of anxiety, the more they will see that anxiety isn’t an enemy. They don’t have to be scared of it. It’s a faithful ally, a protector, and it’s telling them, ‘Brave lives here. Stay with me. Let me show you.’♥️
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#parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinkids #teenanxiety
We have to stop treating anxiety as a disorder. Even for kids who have seismic levels of anxiety, pathologising anxiety will not serve them at all. All it will do is add to their need to avoid the thing that’s driving anxiety, which will most often be something brave, hard, important. (Of course if they are in front of an actual danger, we help anxiety do its job and get them out of the way of that danger, but that’s not the anxiety we’re talking about here.)

The key to anxiety isn’t in the ‘getting rid of’ anxiety, but in the ‘moving with’ anxiety. 

The story they (or we) put to their anxiety will determine their response. ‘You have anxiety. We need to fix it or avoid the thing that’s causing it,’ will drive a different response to, ‘Of course you have anxiety. You’re about to do something brave. What’s one little step you can take towards it?’

This doesn’t mean they will be able to ‘move with’ their anxiety straight away. The point is, the way we talk to them about anxiety matters. 

We don’t want them to be scared of anxiety, because we don’t want them to be scared of the brave, important, new, hard things that drive anxiety. Instead, we want to validate and normalise their anxiety, and attach it to a story that opens the way for brave: 

‘Yes you feel anxious - that’s because you’re about to do something brave. Sometimes it feels like it happens for no reason at all. That’s because we don’t always know what your brain is thinking. Maybe it’s thinking about doing something brave. Maybe it’s thinking about something that happened last week or last year. We don’t always know, and that’s okay. It can feel scary, and you’re safe. I would never let you do something unsafe, or something I didn’t think you could handle. Yes you feel anxious, and yes you can do this. You mightn’t feel brave, but you can do brave. What can I do to help you be brave right now?’♥️

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