How an Unhealthy Diet May Shrink Your Brain

by on September 30, 2015

unhealthy hamburgerCommon knowledge says an unhealthy diet can increase your waistline, and a new study shows it may also decrease the size of your brain. The specific brain section in question is the left hippocampus, which appears to get smaller in people who consume a diet packed with loads of meat, hamburgers, soda and potato chips. Likewise, a healthy diet rife with fresh veggies and fish may actually increase its size.

What the Study Found

The study, published in BMC Medicine, reviewed the hippocampal volume of more than 250 individuals over a 4-year period. They found a hippocampal volume difference of more than 200 cubic millimeters between those who ate healthy diets as compared to those who ate unhealthy diets.

While the association between an unhealthy diet and brain size had previously been explored in animal studies, this was the first study to suggest the same associations exist in the human population.

Previous studies have also shown a link between the quality of diet and depression and cognitive health, with high-fat diets responsible for impairing learning and behavior. The reason behind the impairments may now be attributed to the size of the left hippocampus.

The change in hippocampal volume matched up with the amount of healthy or unhealthy foods consumed. It was also independent of outside factors that included gender, age, education, job status, physical activity, use of medications, symptoms of depression, hypertension, diabetes and smoking.

While the relationship between hippocampal volume and diet was purely observational, it may be enough to prompt changes in the way individuals as well as professionals view the diet as it relates to mental health.

Unhealthy vs. Healthy Diet

The study defined a “Western/unhealthy diet” as one consisting soda, sausages, hamburgers, steak, crisps, chips and plenty of roasted meat. Past studies found diets high in refined sugars and saturated fats negatively impact brain proteins responsible for promoting the growth of new neurons while protecting the existing ones from oxidative stress.

A “prudent/healthy diet” contained foods such as salads, fruits, grilled fish and plenty of fresh vegetables. Diets high in antioxidants or omega-3 fatty acids and other protective lipids increase the levels of those same brain proteins.

Enhancing Mental Health

Whether you’re suffering from driving anxiety, driving fears or driving phobia, depression or other mental health ailments, incorporating healthy foods into your diet can be a wise move to make. Study authors noted that a switch from an unhealthy to a healthy, prudent diet can result in hippocampal volume increases and bring on benefits that include:

  • Promotion of overall hippocampal health
  • Reduction in age-related atrophy
  • Prevention of negative health outcomes linked to hippocampal atrophy

Unhealthy diets continue to be a leading cause of early death across the globe, Medscape notes, while mental disorders rank as the top cause of disabilities.

While a change in diet may not be the only alteration required to make a significant improvement in your overall health, it can be an essential self-care component that benefits you on both the physical and mental levels.

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Photo Credit: Kyota via Compfight cc

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