A sugary diet won’t just put on pounds, it could also slow down your brain. A new study from UCLA researchers shows for the first time how a diet high in high-fructose corn syrup can hamper your ability to learn and remember information. But Omega-3s (which are pretty much goddamn magic, right?) can help counteract the effects of too much fructose, the authors say.
The study—published this week in the peer-reviewed Journal of Physiology—zeroed in on high-fructose corn syrup in diets, instead of cane sugar. The average American consumes more than 40 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup (in soft drinks, cereals, salad dressings, jelly, bread and more) each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Previous studies have diets high in added sugars can contribute to diabetes, obesity and fatty liver. This is the first to look specifically at how it influences the brain.
Whether corn syrup differs nutritionally from regular sugar is up for debate. The Corn Refiners Association is currently fielding a lawsuit for the right to say your body can’t tell the difference between cane sugar and “corn sugar,” the industry’s preferred term for high fructose corn syrup.
“We’re concerned about high-fructose corn syrup that is added to manufactured food products as a sweetener and preservative.”
The study was conducted on rats, who drank a fructose solution instead of drinking water for six weeks. One group also received omega-3 fatty acids in the form of flaxseed oil and DHA, which protects against damage to the brain’s synapses (the chemical connections between brain cells that enable memory and learning). Our bodies can’t produce enough DHA, so it must be supplemented through our diet, Gomez-Pinilla said.
At the end of the study, the rats who were not given omega-3 fatty acids were slower, had poorer memory and had brains that showed a decline in synaptic activity. The omega-3-deprived rats also developed signs of insulin resistance, which could be a precursor to type 2 diabetes. One of the initial signs of insulin resistance is fatigue, short attention span and brain fogginess.
“Insulin is important in the body for controlling blood sugar, but it may play a different role in the brain, where insulin appears to disturb memory and learning,” said Gomez-Pinilla. “Our study shows that a high-fructose diet harms the brain as well as the body.”