Addicted to fat? It's damaging your brain

Are you addicted to fast food? Do you crave that next slice of pizza or double beef burger with bacon? Is your mouth watering at the thought of chicken and chips?

We know that eating too much fat, especially the bad fats such as trans fats and excess cholesterol, is bad for our hearts and our health. Too much fat in the form of cholesterol is also really bad for our brain.

But surely when it comes to food choices it just boils down to personal taste, convenience, and availability doesn’t it?

Maybe not.

It turns out that many of us have a “fatty” or “salt” tooth rather than a “sweet” one.

Eating a high fat diet over a period of time has been shown to induce irreversible changes in rat studies in relation to the “pleasure centres” of the brain.

These are the same reward or pleasure centres as activated by heroin and cocaine.

So yes, it seems that we can indeed become addicted to fatty foods.

Back to those rats and their high fat diet. Over a six month period, the genes associated with reward were found to be altered, leading to the animals then craving those particular types of food when no longer available.

Which means that if you are trying to lose weight, but have previously being eating a diet high in fat, it is going to be much harder to say “no” to that temptation, next time it is wafted in front of your nose.

This could be why some people find it so hard when trying to lose weight to adhere to healthier eating in the longer term.

Our brain makes its own cholesterol that it uses to form synapses and brain cell membranes. But if our diet incorporates a high level of excess fat over a period of time, this leads to brain damage.

Rats fed excess fat in their diets over a 5 month period produced changes in their brains resembling Alzheimer’s pathology, with the formation of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. They also showed evidence of memory impairment, loss of neurons, micro bleeds into the brain and inflammation.

Alzheimer’s is a complex neurological condition, and while cholesterol on its own is not responsible for causing it, it is certainly a contributing factor.

A second study gave rats a high fat, low Omega-3 diet. Omega-3s are essential fatty acids that we have to obtain from our food, as our body does not produce them. They are found in fish, meat, eggs and walnuts. Omega 3s are essential for normal brain function as they form part of the cell membrane around each neuron and help to maintain a healthy brain and normal cognition.

This combination diet led to brains developing x8.7 the amount of amyloid and x1.5 the amount of tau protein build up compared to controls.

So if you have that fat addiction, how can you resist that slice of oh-so-gooey and delicious looking chocolate mud cake? And how about those piping hot chips sprinkled with salt? Perhaps understanding that it is an addiction will help those affected to try and tackle the issue differently.

Following on from this research my question now is: what effect is this chronic high fat diet having on our kids’ brains?

Are we setting our children up for a lifetime of difficulty in weight control and contributing to their risk of developing cognitive problems or neurodegenerative disease in the future?

What are your thoughts?

Refs: Society for Neuroscience (2011, January 19). Long-term, high-fat diet alters mice brains: Brain changes may contribute to cycles of weight gain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 20, 2011, from http://www.sciencedaily.com¬ /releases/2010/11/101115112727.htm

Université Laval (2008, October 31). High-fat Diet Could Promote Development Of Alzheimer's Disease. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 20, 2011, from http://www.sciencedaily.com¬ /releases/2008/10/081028103107.htm

Celine Ullrich, Michael Pirchl, Christian Humpel. Hypercholesterolemia in rats impairs the cholinergic system and leads to memory deficits. Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience, 2010; 45 (4): 408 DOI: 10.1016/j.mcn.2010.08.001