Remember those old "This is your brain on drugs" PSAs? Well, new research published in Physiology & Behavior finds that a diet high in saturated fat may also alter your noggin—in ways that fuel chronic overeating and obesity.
In the study, scientists divided rats into two groups. One had unlimited access to healthy feed, while the other had restricted access to fattening chow, laden with saturated fat. Those fed the “junk” diet became obese, which isn't a surprise, but what was is that when both groups were presented with challenges they had previously aced, the obese rodents performed poorly on tests related to learning and memory.
Researchers say the part of the brain affected may also impact the ability to suppress the desire for unhealthy food. In addition, the researchers administered a traceable dye to all of the rodents and found higher levels in the thinkers of those who were obese, an indication that the blood-brain barrier was less protective.
So what does all of this mean for humans? I think the biggest takeaway is that your diet affects more than the just the size of your jeans. And while it’s unclear if an unhealthy diet would have this impact without obesity, this study and others show that the brain changes caused by eating poorly can make it difficult, if not impossible, to avoid packing on pounds. In other words, a weight-control strategy that also optimizes nutrition—rather than just trying to eat less unhealthy food—is a major key to long-term success and wellness.
RELATED: Is your mind feeling a little foggy? Sharpen it by adding the 11 best foods for your brain to your diet.
If you’re not sure where to begin, first take an inventory of your diet. Do you fit in a minimum of two servings of fruit and three of veggies every day? How about grains: Do you choose whole grains such as oats, brown rice, and quinoa, or are you still reaching for refined versions? Do you tend to eat too many foods high in saturated fat? (Think pizza, cheeseburgers, and ice cream.)
Some of my clients prefer to work on one goal or one meal at a time, such as simply revamping breakfast or focusing on including produce at each meal. Others are more successful diving into a whole new eating plan, like the one from my newest book. (Check out a week’s worth of mix and match meals based on the book’s strategy.)
Regardless of which path you take, set at least one goal today, and track your progress. When you’re not consciously working on a nutrition-related goal, it can be easy to succumb to the social and emotional triggers that cause you to crave, or mindlessly eat, the brain-altering foods that can keep you stuck.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.