How sugar creates junk brains: Bingeing on sweets and sweetened beverages for as little as six weeks can make you ‘stupid’

How sugar creates junk brains: Bingeing on sweets and sweetened beverages for as little as six weeks can make you ‘stupid’


If you’re like most people, you’re consuming an unhealthy amount of sugar on a regular basis. Even if you don’t consistently eat junk food, candy or sweetened beverages, most processed foods contain an excessive amount of added sugar.

The BBC documentary The Truth About Sugar, revealed one serving of Pad Thai noodles has nearly 9.5 teaspoons of sugar; a package of sweet and sour chicken with rice has 12.5 teaspoons; and a serving of dry bran flakes, a breakfast that many think is a healthier choice, has 3 teaspoons.

It is crucial to understand that it’s not just cakes, candies, cookies and sweets that get people into trouble with sugar.

Unfortunately, even many baby foods and formulas contain a shocking amount of sugar that can set your child along a lifelong path of sugar addiction and health problems. One 2020 study examined samples of infant formula available in 11 countries and found most were higher in carbohydrates, sugar and lactose than breast milk and many contain more sugar than a glass of soda.

In an article in The Conversation, one of the researchers wrote: “Some formula milks have double the sugar per serving than a glass of soda. But perhaps more shocking is the fact that there are so few regulations in place to control sugar content and to make sure consumers are well informed.”

As you consider the data from studies in the past decade, it’s easy to understand why child health advocates are strong promoters of breastfeeding and are fighting to provide healthier infant nutritional alternatives to mothers who do not breastfeed.

The featured study published in Cell Metabolism was performed by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Metabolism Research in Cologne, Germany, in collaboration with a team of scientists from Yale University.

The researchers sought to understand the underlying mechanism between eating foods high in fat and sugar and the associated risk of obesity and altered brain dopamine function.

The researchers questioned whether the brain alterations were pre-existing, and thus increased a person’s susceptibility to weight gain because they were more apt to eat foods that were high in fat and sugar, or if the brain changes were directly attributable to exposure to diets that were rich in fat and sugar.

The researchers used a randomised, controlled study and engaged 57 normal-weight individuals for a period of eight weeks during which one group was exposed daily to a high-fat, high-sugar snack and the other to a low-fat, low-sugar snack in addition to their usual diet.

At the conclusion of the study, the data showed those who consumed a high-fat, high-sugar snack had a lower preference for low-fat foods, had an increased brain response and had “associative learning independent of food cues or reward.”

The researchers measured associative learning using imaging in combination with auditory cues and visual outcomes.

They discovered those who ate a high-fat, high-sugar snack had neural encoding responses that were more enhanced than those eating a low-fat, low-sugar snack. Notably, the differences were not related to the individual’s age, sex, insulin resistance, or fat mass.

The intervention occurred over eight weeks and the researchers noted that the participants in both groups had no change in body weight or metabolic health. Marc Tittgemeyer from Max Planck Institute led the study.

He commented on the results in a press release, saying: “Our measurements of brain activity showed that the brain rewires itself through the consumption of chips and co. It subconsciously learns to prefer rewarding food. Through these changes in the brain, we will unconsciously always prefer foods that contain a lot of fat and sugar.

“New connections are made in the brain, and they don’t dissolve so quickly. After all, the whole point of learning is that once you learn something, you don’t forget it so quickly.”

According to a press release from UCLA Health, bingeing on sweets and sweetened beverages for as little as six weeks can make you “stupid.”

The study showed how eating a diet high in fructose could slow brain function, memory and learning.

“Our findings illustrate that what you eat affects how you think,” said Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain’s ability to learn and remember information.”

In this study, the researchers found that a diet deficient in omega-3 fatty acids exacerbated the damage and increased the vulnerability to metabolic dysfunction and impaired cognitive function.

Amy Reichelt, neuroscientist, researcher and consultant explains what happens in the brain: “When we eat sweet foods the brain’s reward system – called the mesolimbic dopamine system – gets activated. Dopamine is a brain chemical released by neurons and can signal that an event was positive. When the reward system fires, it reinforces behaviours – making it more likely for us to carry out these actions again.

“Dopamine ‘hits’ from eating sugar promote rapid learning to preferentially find more of these foods. Our environment today is abundant with sweet, energy-rich foods. We no longer have to forage for these special sugary foods – they are available everywhere. Unfortunately, our brain is still functionally very similar to our ancestors, and it really likes sugar.”

A 2019 study published in Scientific Reports found that sugar affected the brain’s reward system in mini-pigs in a “manner similar to that of drugs of abuse.”

The paper’s senior writer spoke to a reporter from Inverse, saying: “Sugar alters brain circuitry in ways that are similar to, for example, cocaine, which is well known to alter the dopamine and opioid systems in the brain.”

Using PET imaging after the mini-pigs were exposed to sucrose water for one hour a day for 12 days, the researchers wrote: “Excessive sucrose consumption elicits addiction-like craving that may underpin the obesity epidemic. Opioids and dopamine mediate the rewarding effects of drugs of abuse, and of natural rewards from stimuli such as palatable food.”

The imaging demonstrated that consumption of sugar triggered a release of natural opioids and dopamine, thus lowering the availability of those receptors.

This type of pig was chosen as they have well-defined subcortical and prefrontal cortical regions that offered a “more direct translation to human brain function.”

Reduced receptor availability is a sign of overstimulation and results in down-regulation of the receptors to protect your brain from damage. The drawback of this mechanism is that you now require a higher dose to get the same pleasure response. This is a key mechanism to addiction.

Even a single week of binge eating fast food can impair your appetite control. In one Australian study, researchers found that volunteers were more likely to want more junk food even after they had just eaten.

The same volunteers scored lower on memory tests, which confirmed past data that showed a Western-style diet impairs memory and learning.

  • The Defender report / By Dr Joseph Mercola, writer for Children’s Health Defence
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