As we all know, everything delicious is terrible for you. That is especially true of sweets, which are so tasty but also can cause nasty things like diabetes. Still, most of us are able to convince ourselves that eating sugar probably won't kill us. Sure, but you know what will happen if we keep stuffing our faces with soda and candy and a thousand other delights? We'll get stupid. Well, stupid-er. Yes, sadly, a new study has found that eating lots of sugar, even for just six weeks, makes you dumb.
This was all determined by a study done at UCLA by Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a professor of neurosurgery and integrative biology and physiology. To test the effects of sugar, he and his team used the familiar clear devil, high-fructose corn syrup, which is in a gazillion different kinds of foods we eat all the time. In fact, the average American eats 40-plus pounds of the goop in a year. Maybe after this we'll have to start calling it Stupid Juice. Or we could call it Stoopid Juice and market it as an "energy" drink that helps you be less worried about life because you can't remember any of the bad stuff that happens. Anyway, back to the experiment.
Gomez-Pinilla and Rahul Agrawal, the study's co-author, looked at two groups of rats that were each given a fructose solution to drink instead of water for six weeks. The second group of rats was also give flaxseed oil, for omega-3 fatty acids and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). This is important, according to Gomez-Pinilla, because,
DHA is essential for synaptic function — brain cells' ability to transmit signals to one another. This is the mechanism that makes learning and memory possible. Our bodies can't produce enough DHA, so it must be supplemented through our diet.
In addition to their fructose, rats were given standard rat chow (yum), and they were trained on a maze twice a day for five days before they began the diet. The researchers tested how well the rats could navigate the maze. Six weeks later, after a steady amount of fructose had been coursing through their veins, the rats were tested again for their ability to remember the route and find their way out of the maze. The results were pretty clear, according to Gomez-Pinilla:
The second group of rats navigated the maze much faster than the rats that did not receive omega-3 fatty acids. The DHA-deprived animals were slower, and their brains showed a decline in synaptic activity. Their brain cells had trouble signaling each other, disrupting the rats' ability to think clearly and recall the route they'd learned six weeks earlier.
Hopefully you haven't been downing super-sized sodas for the past six weeks, or you're going to have real trouble understanding that quote.
The rats who didn't get the DHA also had signs of insulin resistance. Insulin is famous for controlling blood sugar, but it also regulates the brain's synaptic function. When they looked at the rats' brain tissue, it looked like the insulin had lost some power over the brain cells. Gomez-Pinilla said it may be that the high levels of fructose blocked insulin's "ability to regulate how cells use and store sugar for the energy required for processing thoughts and emotions." Uh oh. Taking in a steady dose of DHA, however, seemed to moderate the effects of fructose, making it possible for the rats to continue thinking straight.
So, the lesson we learn from this is don't let your pet rats suckle on high-fructose corn syrup or they're going to be really dumb. Psych! Unfortunately, while this study was done on rats, the results are likely applicable to us poor, sugar-loving human beings as well. Gomez-Pinilla explains the consequences of his research:
Our findings illustrate that what you eat affects how you think. Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain's ability to learn and remember information. But adding omega-3 fatty acids to your meals can help minimize the damage.
So, in other words, we probably shouldn't be stuffing our face with candy, soda, cupcakes, or ketchup or cereal or any of the thousand other things that contain high-fructose corn syrup or just plain sugar. But if we are going to do it—which let's face it, we are—then we should load up on Omega-3s to keep ourselves from becoming totally dumb and non-functional. That sounds easy enough. Anyone want to try a donut stuffed with fish oil crème? How about some delicious flaxseed-oil-infused artisanal Twinkies? Or what about this delicious sardine soda? Anyone? Anyone?
Sugar makes you stupid [EurekAlert]
Image via Serg Zastavkin/Shutterstock.