The dark side of junk foods is not an unknown fact. Several research studies have shown that fast foods and processed foods have increased childhood obesity, heart disease and diabetes and other chronic diseases. Recently, the Delhi Government demanded a crackdown on junk food that is sold in schools and within 50 meters of them. Not only do they add inches to your waistline, but scientists and researchers have also indicated through various studies that junk food can actually cause serious damage to your brain. The worrying bit is that it's not just years of poor eating, but regular consumption of junk food even for few days can lead to a mental meltdown.
In his book, Encyclopedia of Junk Food and Fast Food, Andre F. Smith defines junk food as, "those commercial products, including candy, bakery goods, ice cream, salty snacks, and soft drinks, which have little or no nutritional value but do have plenty of calories, salt, and fats. While not all fast foods are junk foods, most are. Fast foods are ready-to-eat foods served promptly after ordering."
The more junk food you consume, the less likely you are to consume the essential nutrients that your body relies on. You know that junk food can hurt your health, but you may have not known about the effects of junk food on how your brain functions.
1. It can cause memory and learning problems
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2011 showed that healthy people who ate junk food for only 5 days performed poorly on cognitive tests that measured attention, speed, and mood. It concluded that eating junk food for just five days regularly can deteriorate your memory. This probably stems from the fact that a poor or toxic diet can cause certain chemical reactions that lead to inflammation in the hippocampus area of the brain which is associated with memory and special recognition.
Diets that are high in sugar and fat can suppress the activity of a brain peptide called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) that helps with learning and memory formation. Moreover, the brain contains synapses which are responsible for learning and memory. Eating too many calories can interfere with the healthy production and functioning of these synapses.
2. Increases the risk of dementia
This has been one of the scariest discoveries associated with the consumption of junk food. You may know that insulin is produced in the pancreas and helps in the transportation of glucose to fuel the body. Insulin is also produced in the brain where it helps in carrying signals between nerve cells and forming memories. A study conducted at the Brown University shows that too much fatty food and sweets can substantially increase the insulin levels in our body.
Just like in the case of Type 2 Diabetes, with higher levels of insulin, the brain stops responding to this hormone and become resistant to it. This can restrict our ability to think, recall or create memories, thus increasing the risk of dementia. Researcher Suzanne de la Monte, M.D., a professor of pathology, neurology, and neurosurgery at Rhode Island Hospital and the Alpert Medical School of Brown University was the first to uncover this association. Following this discovery, most scientists refer to Alzheimer's as a form of diabetes of the brain.
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3. Lessens its ability to control appetite
Excess consumption of trans fats found in fried and processed foods can send mixed signals to the brain which makes it difficult to process what you have eaten and how hungry are. This is probably why you end up overeating. Healthy brain functions require a daily dose of essential fatty acids like omega-6 and omega-3. Deficiency of these two elements increases the risk of attention deficit disorder, dementia and bipolar disorder and other brain-related problems.
Over consumption of junk food may displace these with trans fats which are harder to digest. A 2011 study shows that trans fats may cause inflammation in hypothalamus, the part of brain that containing neurons to control body weight.
In worst scenarios, the habit of overeating can be similar to drug addiction to an extent that relying on junk foods may activate the pleasure centres of the brain greater than receiving drugs.
(Junk Food May Kill Your Appetite for Healthy Food)
4. It can cause chemical changes that can lead to depression
A lot of studies have shown that eating foods high in sugar and fat actually changes the chemical activity of the brain making it more dependent on such foods. A study conducted at the University of Montreal on mice showed that they suffered with withdrawal symptoms after their regular junk food diet was discontinued. In humans, these withdrawal symptoms can lead to the inability to deal with stress, make you feel depressed and eventually you would turn back to those foods to comfort yourself and handle these feelings. Soon, you may be caught in a vicious cycle even before you know it. Also, by consuming too much fast food you may lose out on essential nutrients like amino acid tryptophan, the lack of which can increase feelings of depression. An imbalance of fatty acids is another reason why people who consume more junk food are at a higher risk of depression.
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5. It makes you impatient and can cause uncontrollable cravings
Eating a sugary cupcake or doughnut may temporarily spike your blood sugar levels making you feel happy and satisfied but as soon as they return to normal you are left feeling all the more irritable.
Fast food is packed with refined carbohydrates which cause your blood sugar levels to fluctuate rapidly. If your sugar levels dip to a very low level, it can cause anxiety, confusion and fatigue. With high content of sugar and fats, you tend to eat too fast and too much to satisfy your cravings. This can inculcate an impatient behaviour while dealing with other things. Fast foods and processed foods may be laden with artificial flavourings and preservatives like sodium benzoate that tends to increase hyperactivity.
Fast foods are specially designed to be addictive in nature with high levels of salts, sugars and fats that make you crave them. The addictive nature of fast food can make your brain crave them even when you are not hungry.