Did you know that what you eat can have an effect on the size of the most important organ in your body? For the guys reading this look up, and wipe that smile off your face. I’m talking about your brain. Now don’t be disappointed your brain is actually really important.
What this study found was that certain foods in your diet will directly affect the size of a part of your brain called the hippocampus. No it has nothing to do with hippopotamuses. Try to stay with me. The hippocampus is a part of the brain that is crucial for learning and memory. Not surprisingly it is one of the first areas of the brain affected in Alzheimer’s patients. This is why they remember things from their past but can’t learn anything new or remember recent events. This area of the brain is what process new information and commits it to memory. See I told you the brain was important.
This study compared people’s diets and rated them based on how much they ate certain types of foods. Food was grouped into a healthy category and included things like fish, fresh vegetables, salad and fruit or into what they termed a “Western” diet and included things like sausages, hamburgers, steak, chips, crisps (the study was done in Europe, in the US we’d call them French Fries) and soft drinks. After completing the food surveys noting how often and how much of the types of food they ate the study participants had MRI scans of their brain. The MRI scan allows the researchers to accurately measure the size of the brain. At a 4 year follow up they redid the food questionnaires and had another scan of their brain to compare the size change in their brain.
The results at follow up showed a decrease in the size of the left side of the hippocampus in the people that ate more from the unhealthy list of food or the less they ate from the healthy list. Why the left side? It isn’t totally clear but the left side has better blood supply so it may be more sensitive to the changes in diet. The left side is also the first side to show changes in Alzheimer’s patients.
Other studies have shown similar protective effects to the brain when using certain supplements, like fish oil. Fish oil is one of the healthiest fats you can consume.
It used to be commonly thought that you can’t change the nerve cells in your brain and they don’t regenerate, which is why brain injuries are so devastating. However now it is known that while you don’t grow new nerve cells in your brain, the nerve cells there can and do make new connections. It is the fats that surround the nerve cells which allow these new connections to be made. Most of your brain by weight is fat. Think of it like the insulation surrounding an electrical wire. If this insulation is healthy the brain can make these new connections and continue to improve in function.This is why supplementing with fish oil is so important in protecting your brain.
In this study it is showing that poor dietary choices are impacting the fats that surround and protect our nerve cells which decrease their ability to work properly. The change in the fat is where the change in size is coming from.
So not only does eating a diet full of healthy fats like those from fish, and plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables protect you from heart disease, cancer, and obesity it protects your brain too. It’s the one part of your body where you’re allowed to get fat!