Here's another reason to eat better in 2017: a new study finds it's good for your brain health and memory.
NPR wrote about the study, which was conducted by psychologist Terry Davidson. He found that eating a Western diet -- or one that's associated with lots of fats and sugars -- will affect more than how tightly your pants fit. It also can have negative effects on your brain's cognitive function. What's more, Davidson found poor eating habits can trick your brain into not realizing you're full, leading you to overeat.
Davidson is the Director of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience. Initially, he wasn't even studying what people ate. "Instead, he was interested in learning more about the hippocampus, a part of the brain that's heavily involved in memory," writes Alan Yu for NPR. The psychologist and neuroscientist wanted to understand what happened when certain parts of the brain's hippocampus were damaged. So he compared rats with damaged hippocampi to those with healthy ones.
In his research, Davidson discovered something odd. The rats with hippocampal damage grabbed food more often than rats with healthy hippocampi. They'd nibble on it for a bit, then drop it. Davidson realized the rats were picking up food even though they weren't hungry.
Based on this study and prior research, Davidson suspects something similar might be happening in the brains of humans who overeat bad-for-you foods. In short, he concluded that increased consumption of foods like sugary drinks, high-fat dairy and processed meats can damage our hippocampi, impair our decision making and hurt our memories. And it just makes us eat more of that bad stuff. He calls it "the vicious cycle of cognitive decline."
These are a few of the other effects Davidson and other brain scientists say eating too many fats and sugars can have on our brains.
Once you start, it's hard to stop
With a damaged hippocampus, it becomes more difficult to stop eating the foods that are bad for you. You may unconsciously consume more that you need to feel full, leading to further weight gain, more health problems and further hippocampal damage. "I think the evidence is fairly substantial that you have an effect of these diets and obesity on brain function and cognitive function," Davidson told NPR.
It's harder to remember things
Lucy Cheke, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge, conducted another study earlier this year. Her team studied the memories of obese people and lean people. Both groups were tasked with a computer-based activity that tested their ability to remember where they hid items on the screen. The lean people were determined to have healthier brains because they performed 15-20 percent better on the memory tests.
Your brain ages faster
The NPR piece also points to research conducted last summer by the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience. Researchers examined the brains of overweight people and lean people between the ages of 20 and 87. They found the overweight people had significantly more white matter in their brains. A 50-year-old overweight person had the same white matter as a lean 60-year-old. This means the overweight people's brains looked as if they were 10 years older.
The library of research linking diet and brain health continues to expand. Neurologists, psychologists and other brain scientists are just beginning to understand the bigger picture. Since eating poorly can lead to a wealth of health problems, it's not easy to isolate which foods may affect which parts of the brain.
Yet it shouldn't be surprising that our brains require healthy foods for nourishment and optimal function. It's the most complex organ in our bodies. We should feed it the good stuff.