Wednesday, 13 June 2012

the (demented) brain on industrial food

Blackberries gathered on a long walk charge up the brain as well as the body.

I recently read 100 Simple Things You Can Do To Prevent Alzheimers and Age-Related Memory Loss by Jean Carper (see her website for more on the book and its message). Carper used to be a journalist specialising in medical matters, and is familiar with searching medical databases and interviewing health researchers. In the book she assembles the results of studies that have looked at what causes the damage associated with Alzheimer's and similar brain diseases, and made suggestions or recommendations for how to prevent them accordingly. A lot of the evidence is circumstantial rather than experimental, as experiments on humans in this area are very hard to conduct, but Carper has selected only the best work.

In this regard I was most interested to learn of the extent to which industrial food can cause as much damage to the brain as it does to the body. This is not surprising, given that the brain is made up of cells just like the rest of the body, and those cells depend on what the rest of the body does by way of nutrition, exercise and so on for their health and longevity. It may not be surprising, but it is probably not the sort of damage most people anticipate when they tuck into a double cheese burger and wash it down with a thickshake. They may know that too many of these will make them obese – but do they know that such a diet will also hasten senility?

Carper devotes several chapters to the worst parts of the industrial diet – foods that should be avoided for the sake of a healthy brain that works well long into old age. She starts with the bad fats – the saturated fats in animal foods and the transfats (artificial fats made from plant oils) used in industrial baked goods, margarine, salad dressings and other processed foods. Animal experiments have shown that rats eating the same percentage of saturated animal fats as the typical American diet develop severe brain and memory dysfunction, to the point of being unable to learn anything new. One study of elderly Americans found that those who ate the most transfats were four times more likely to develop Alzheimers than those who ate the least, while those who ate the most saturated fat were twice as likely to become demented as those who ate the least.

The other problem with eating these fats is that they dispose you to insulin resistance, a main feature of Type 2 diabetes which is also linked to Alzheimer's. Type 2 diabetes is in turn linked with gross overweight or obesity – a condition caused by too much energy in, too little energy out. Fats contain twice as many calories, weight for weight, as protein or carbohydrates, so the best place to start cutting calories is with fats. (With the exception of the good fatty acids found in extra virgin olive oil, flax seed oil and fatty fish.)

Saturated fat is found in all animal products, but some of those products also hold other dangers. Too much meat, even lean meat, is bad for the brain in itself. One study showed that meat eaters were 20 per cent more prone to dementia than strict vegetarians, while another study reported that heavy meat eaters were more than twice as likely to develop dementia as vegetarians. How does this happen? There are various reasons, including the way in which meat causes inflammation in the brain as well as the rest of the body which leds to the destruction of healthy cells. Then there are the toxic chemicals which form when meat is cooked, plus the fact that meat is rich in iron – and too much iron is bad for the brain. Processed or cured meats are especially dangerous because they contain nitrosamines, which are implicated in causing cancer as well as dementia.

Sugar is something else to give a swerve if you want to stay smart into old age. It has a bad effect on the brain in itself, and of course it promotes fat and weight gain. The worst kind of sugar in this regard is the most industrial one – high fructose corn syrup – which has been shown to be much more effective than regular sucrose for piling on belly fat and promoting insulin resistance.

The other major damage that industrial foods do to the brain is not thanks to what they have, but what they don't have – the multitude of micro-nutrients (vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants, fatty acids, etc.) which are essential to brain as well as body health. A lot of the chapters in the book are devoted to the best sources of such micro-nutrients. Some of these – berry fruits, apples, cinnamon, dark green leafy vegetables, deep red or orange fruits and vegetables – it would be hard to impossible to eat too much of. Others, such as dark chocolate, red wine, coffee, nuts, olive oil and fatty fish could be over-done, but have protective effects if taken regularly in moderation. Note that these foods are either eaten raw and/or unprocessed, or have had only the processing required to make them edible. Note also that they are all traditional foods, that a giant food industry is not required to produce them, and that although there are now mega-industrial versions of some of them (e.g. coffee, wine, olive oil, chocolate) these are the poorest quality products, and will not promote health in the way that properly-produced foods will.

Industrial food is bad for the brain and body for another reason, which has nothing to do with what is actually in the food. It is that we don't have to expend any of our own energy to get it. Pushing a trolley around the supermarket and unloading food bags from the car requires very little effort, while ordering and picking up fast foods requires even less. All this conservation of human energy comes at a price. Since Homo sapiens first evolved some 200,000 years ago we have had to work hard (often walking many miles in one day) to find our food, and in the past 10,000 years to grow it as well. It is only in the past 100 years that a disconnect between working and eating has occurred, as increasing fossil fuel energy use has allowed (or in some cases forced) millions of people out of food production and into other occupations. Those who lead sedentary lives now find that they can't have their cake and eat it too - or as Barry Commoner's Fourth Law of Ecology puts it - There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.

The price of the industrial food lunch is very high – thick bodies and thick heads. Sadly, with more and more of us forced to live in concrete jungles, the opportunities for closing the energy circle between food production and consumption at the personal level become fewer and fewer. However, those who are lucky enough to have their own patch of earth, or access to an allotment or community garden, can still enjoy working to produce a high-quality lunch, and stay smart longer as a result. And if you don't believe that gardening can be as good as a gym work out, check out my post on aerobic gardening over at The Eco Gardener.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this informative article. Brain damage caused by fatty food might be one reason why people who habitually over-eat find it so hard to lose weight.