Thursday, October 18, 2012

Don’t Let Sugar Make You Stupid

Beyond adding to the obesity problem in the US, sugar can also be harmful to our brains, according to a new study.
This research found that a diet high in fructose, a common type of sugar, may impair memory.
But before you clear out the candy drawer and swear off dessert forevermore, the same study suggests that there’s a way to protect our brains from sugar’s harmful effects.
And it’s not a difficult—or expensive—trick.
You may be able to cancel out the brain-busting effects of sugar by eating more of a certain type of nutrient.


Previous studies had shown that omega-3 fatty acids are critical for brain development. So researchers at UCLA, led by Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, PhD, wanted to see if they might cancel out the negative cognitive effects of fructose. They designed an experiment comparing four groups of rats that were each given a different diet—no fructose and no omega-3s…no fructose and lots of omega-3s… lots of fructose and no omega-3s…or lots of fructose and lots of omega-3s. After each rat had eaten its particular diet for six weeks, it was plopped into a maze to see how quickly it would get through. (Yes, the good ol’ rat-in-a-maze technique!)
Results: The rats in the lots-of-fructose, no-omega-3 group (which came in dead last) took nearly twice as long to complete the maze as the rats in the lots-of-fructose, lots-of-omega-3 group (the second-slowest group). How come? As the researchers later found, the lots-of-fructose, no-omega-3 rats had signs of disrupted insulin receptor signaling in the brain. This means that the cells in the brain were less efficient at signaling neurons to release or store sugar, which the brain needs to do in order to think clearly, remember well and learn well. (The rats in the no-fructose, no-omega-3 group also had brains that showed this problem but not to the same extent.)
Overall, the rats in the no-fructose, lots-of-omega-3 group completed the maze the fastest, as you’d expect, and the no-fructose, no-omega-3 rats were second-fastest.

This means that consuming fructose—which is found not just in desserts and sugary drinks but also in ketchup, crackers, cold cuts, salad dressing, peanut butter and canned corn, among other products—might not just be widening your waistline but dulling your brainpower, too. “In humans, this sort of memory dysfunction would likely be characterized by small things, such as forgetting where you put your keys,” said Dr. Gomez-Pinilla. While the researchers tested only fructose in this experiment, they believe that all types of sugar would affect the brain similarly.


Since sugar is so widespread in today’s foods and beverages, and since it’s hard to resist, it’s encouraging to know that a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids may help to mitigate its negative effects on our minds.
So I’m not going to wag my finger at you and say, “Never eat sugar!” Instead, I’d like to propose the following workable, “real life” way for you to keep your brain healthier: From now on, don’t allow yourself to consume any very sugary food unless you also specifically consume a food with omega-3 fatty acids at the same meal. This is easier than you might think! For example…
1. Toss ground flaxseed onto cereal. Many cereals contain added sugar…so sprinkle some ground flaxseed, which is rich in omega 3s, right on top. It adds fiber and a pleasant nutty flavor, too. If you are new to flaxseed, start slowly with maybe a half teaspoonful, Dr. Gomez-Pinilla said, to give your system time to adjust to the fiber, and work your way up to perhaps a tablespoon.
2. Don’t have dessert unless you eat fish. Many types of fish—salmon, especially—are high in omega-3s. Dr. Gomez-Pinilla recommends eating fish three times a week. If you limit having sweets to just these three days, you’ll likely slash your sugar intake—and give yourself a reward for eating omega-3s!
3. When you have dessert, include nuts. Walnuts, in particular, are packed with omega 3s. So when you do eat a sweet, choose one with walnuts or other nuts built in, or sprinkle them on top. (Crushed walnuts on ice cream or frozen yogurt—very good!) Over time, you’ll come to automatically think of sweets only if you also have omega-3s—and that will do you good.
Source: Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, PhD, professor of physiological science, department of integrative biology and physiology, University of California Los Angeles. His study was published in Journal of Physiology.

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