Can Fast Food Change Your Brain?

January 20th, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

A new study suggests fatty foods do more than make you put on pounds.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

I’ve taken a laissez-faire attitude toward fast food in the past. In general, I don’t eat it and I don’t feed it to my daughter (it’s expensive, full of fat, and who’s kidding whom: new healthy choices like apple slices are likely to elicit a screaming fit if she knows that drive-thru window can produce French fries).  But after a long, difficult day, sometimes nothing sounds better than the silence of a formerly shrieking child now happy and with a mouth full of chicken nuggets. Parents, don’t tell me you haven’t been there.

Still, we continue to report on such statistics as the possibility that half the adults in the U.S. could be obese by 2030.  And now, an alarming new study has me looking twice at even my occasional forays through the drive thru. The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, indicates that fast food could actually scar your brain. Researchers from the Diabetes and Obesity Center of Excellence at the University of Washington, who led the study, fed rats and mice a high-fat diet similar to the classic American fast food diet.

After just one day, the rodents showed inflammation in the hypothalamus – the area that produces the hormones that control hunger, thirst, sleep, moods and the rhythms of the body. After about a week, their brains activated cells to repair the damage from the fatty foods, but within a few weeks the effects returned and remained for eight months, or until the study ended.

But the warning signs aren’t exclusive to our four-legged friends. Michael Schwartz, one of the lead researchers on the study, looked at MRI scans done on the brains of 34 people and told NPR that those suffering from obesity had more repair activity in the hypothalamus than those of normal weight.

Still, he says, these are just clues as to what might be going on in the brains of people who are obese. Is it possible to reverse the trend? Next up: a study of rodents who are switched to a healthful diet after gaining weight to see if their brains return to normal.

The idea that a change in diet can actually re-program the structure of the brain is “radically different,” Dr. Steven R. Smith, co-director for the Sanford-Burnham Diabetes and Obesity Research Center (unaffiliated with the study), told CNN. Of course, he points out that not everything that scientists observe in rodents will translate to the human condition, but it’s a starting point.

What’s your take on fast food? All in moderation, or do studies like this make you want to drop the drive-thru all together? Sound off here.