It’s no secret excess sugar isn’t exactly sweet where your health is concerned, but now new research indicates it may take a toll on your brain as well as your waistline. In a recent animal study, UCLA researchers found that rats fed a solution of fructose had a harder time navigating a maze, a sign of slowed learning and memory loss, compared to a second group of rats who were given the fructose solution as well as omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to have a brain-boosting effect. The researchers suspect that the fructose-only diet decreased brain activity because it affected insulin’s ability to help brain cells use sugar to process thoughts and emotions. Certain omega-3 fatty acids may buffer the brain from the harmful effects of fructose. Use the news: While this research is preliminary, it’s just general good health advice to minimize your intake of added sugar (see some shockingly sneaky sources here) and up your consumption of foods rich in omega-3s, including walnuts, salmon, flax seeds and soybeans to your meals.
Red Meat and ButteriStock/robynmac, iStock/Kativ
A diet high in “bad” saturated fat may hurt brain function, according to new Harvard research published in the Annals of Neurology. When researchers studied the eating habits and tested the brain function of 6,000 women for an average of four years, they found the women who ate the most saturated fat scored lower on tests of brain function and memory. On the other hand, women who ate the most monounsaturated fats (found in foods like olive oil and avocado) had higher scores. Use the news: You don’t need to shun saturated fat sources entirely, but choose low or non-fat versions of animal products, such as cheese, yogurt, and milk. Avoid processed meat, like bacon, and stick to lean cuts. Get more protein from vegetable sources, like soy and legumes.
Chips, pizza, and other junk foodiStock/Issaurinko, iStock/Sezeryadigar
Will junk food rot kids’ brains? A 2011 British study of nearly 4,000 children found that those who ate primarily junk food (lots of processed and fast food) at age three had a small drop in IQ five years later compared with children who ate healthier diets. (And the link remained after researchers accounted for confounding variables, such as socioeconomic status and parents’ education.) Early diet choices especially seemed to affect kids’ verbal abilities, according to Time.com. The study suggests that smart diet choices may be particularly crucial during early years of rapid brain development. Use the news: It can be tricky to get young picky eaters to eat healthy foods, but remember that kids need repeated exposure (sometimes a dozen or more times) to “like” a new food. So don’t give up so easily! And many classic kid favorites, like string cheese and yogurt, make for healthy snacks instead of processed cookies and chips.
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Does blowing that bubble boost or bust your brainpower? Here, the research is mixed. A recent British study published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology found that chewing gum during a memorization exercise impaired participants’ short-term memories. The researchers believe the act of chewing may get in the way of concentrating on memory tasks (In this case, participants were asked to learn the order of items in a list) The finding contradicts previous research, which found a positive association between chewing gum and mental tasks. Use the news: Because of mixed study results, you might not want to spit just yet. But be sure to include other brain-boosting habits in your daily routine, such as drinking water (dehydration can affect focus and acuity), getting plenty of sleep, and playing brain games.
Ditching carbs can sap brainpower (along with energy and mood). A small Tufts University study of 19 women between the ages of 22 and 55 found that when dieters eliminated carbohydrates, they showed a gradual dip in cognitive skills (particularly on memory-related tests) compared to a group who stayed on a low-calorie diet that included carbs. Use the news: Carbs aren’t evil—your body needs them for many important functions, including fueling your brain. So avoid diets that eliminate or severely restrict them, and choose healthy options, like whole grain pastas and breads, brown rice, and quinoa.