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Is junk food changing your brain's inner workings?

RMIT neuroscientists made a detailed research and the results will probably make you scream in horror! And throw those nuggets away!

Before we begin, lets start by defining what is junk food and why it's widely used as an interchangeable term with fast food. Junk food is the food with really low nutrition value, often even called "empty calories". Fast food on the other hand is what you would order or take away in a hurry, but fast food is not always junk food. Well, most of the time it is and that's why people like me would mix and match both terms.

โ€œYou are what you eatโ€

And for once that is more true than ever, however harsh it might sound. Hear me out - junk food is changing the very structure of your brain! This in term changes your very own personality, whether you'll notice it or not. So we all know that junk food is bad for us in at least one way by now, yet we're still eating lots of it. Have you wondered why is that?

Junk food makes you high! The brain has a reward system that hardwires us to want to engage in behaviours that we find pleasurable - like eating tasty food. When we eat junk food, the reward circuits within our brain activate and release the chemical dopamine. Our brain can become overwhelmed by the pleasure from these rewarding foods and in response, the brain adapts by making more receptors for dopamine.

Credit: Science News

Credit: Science News

This means a greater amount of junk food is needed for us to get the same โ€œkickโ€, making us eat more, in the same way that an addict develops a tolerance to drugs. So, our brain is hardwired to seek out and want rewarding food, making us crave and desire sweet and fatty meals. In a way, junk food makes us junkies, so we literally become what we eat!

Spontaneous combustion

Junk food grabs your attention and makes you impulsive! We rapidly learn that these fatty, sugary junk foods are delicious and our attention is drawn to them when we see them. To resist the temptation we need the major control centre in the brain - the prefrontal cortex. This area doesnโ€™t mature until our early 20s, which is a reason why teenagers can sometimes act impulsively.

Credit: Science News

Credit: Science News

Recent research has also shown that consuming lots of sugary drinks when you are young could alter brain development. The scientists found that the sugar consuming adolescents found it harder to follow rules as adults. Combine this with the fact young brains are not yet functioning at an optimal level and itโ€™s not surprising more and more young people are developing obesity.

Double damage

Junk food can inflame your brain! Junk food is highly refined and contains very high levels of sugar and fat - more than the majority of natural foods. In the same way as eating food you are allergic to can inflame your mouth - junk foods can cause a similar reaction in the brain. This is called neuroinflammation and it sets off a self-perpetuating series of events leading to more inflammation that can damage brain cells called neurons.

Credit: Science News

Credit: Science News

Australian researchers recently showed that as little as five days on a diet of sugary drinks, cakes and cookies caused increased levels of inflammation in the hippocampus. People with damage to the hippocampus report being hungry all the time. The hippocampus has been found to be important in receiving fullness-signalling messages from the gut, so eating a junk food diet can create a vicious cycle of damage to the neurons in the hippocampus, and the damage causes people to eat more and damage themselves more.

"Honey, I shrunk my brain"

Well, not literally, but junk food shrinks the brainโ€™s learning capabilities! The hippocampus is the memory centre of the brain and researchers have found that people who eat lots of junk food donโ€™t perform as well as those who follow healthy diets in simple memory tests. Our experiences are stored as memories, which are formed in the brain through connections between neurons which are constantly being reorganized in response to the dynamic environment we live within.

Credit: Science News

Credit: Science News

Junk food laden diets have been shown to reduce neuroplasticity โ€“ which is essential for us to form new memories and learn new things rapidly. This process can be described by the term neuroplasticity - or that โ€œneurons that fire together, wire togetherโ€. Junk food laden diets have been shown to reduce neuroplasticity - which is essential for us to form new memories and learn new things rapidly.

Hello darkness, my old friend...

Junk food reduces the generation of new neurons! The birth of new neurons, or neurogenesis, happens throughout life in the hippocampus. These new neurons have high levels of neuroplasticity, meaning they are very easily activated by environmental events and are essential for forming new memories.

Credit: Science News

Credit: Science News

Reductions in the population of young neurons have been related to mental health disorders including depression, which brings us back to the notion of self-perpetuating cycles - junk food can make us feel pleasure whenย we are sad, so we eat more, which makes us sadder. Ironic, isn't it?

It's not all doom and gloom

We can all take simple steps to modify our lifestyles to reduce the impact of unhealthy diets on our brain. Fresh fruits and vegetables have inflammation-fighting antioxidants including polyphenols and vitamin E. Oily fish and avocados are great sources of Omega-3 fatty acid which boosts neurogenesis, and aerobic exercise helps us lose weight, and also boosts neuroplasticity in the brain. So by taking steps to lead a more active and healthy lifestyle we can be keeping both our body and brains in good shape!

Credit: Science News

Credit: Science News

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