Bigger portions, smaller brain: A FOX 8 Special Report - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports

Bigger portions, smaller brain: A FOX 8 Special Report


We love it and it can love us back. But consuming too much of what our taste buds crave can result in super-sized waistlines, while downsizing a part of the body no one can live without.

"Even as you age, to stay alive the brain cells have to multiply and regenerate themselves. Food has an impact on that by way of the nutritional value of food," said Melinda Sothern, Ph.D., director of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences at the LSU Health Sciences Center.

You could say the brain is the control center for everything that we do, and in recent years scientists have devoted more and more attention to the brain and how it is affected by food.

 A study released last month in the Journal Radiology suggested that Type 2 diabetes was associated with brain degeneration or atrophy. The study looked at more than 600 patients and found that Type 2 diabetes was associated with brain volume loss, which could affect cognitive functions in the future.

But even if you are not a diabetic, you may not be in the clear. There is also research which says too many calories can cause brain shrinkage.

"Brain cells - instead of naturally as one dies another one comes to takes its place, another one doesn't come to take its place, so that brain cell dies, and the brain size - and they can actually measure this - begins to get smaller," said Sothern.

We also interviewed S. Michal Jazwinski, Ph.D., director of Tulane's Center for Aging.

"Imagine yourself looking at a plum - nice, juicy, ripe plum, there it's sitting and let's watch it for a few days. After a while you'll see these little wrinkles on the skin. If you leave it a little longer, those wrinkles become more and more pronounced," he said, comparing it to a shrinking brain.

It is said that a normal human brain is about the size of a head of cauliflower.

"And they'll shrink no matter what diet you're on. It's a normal process associated with aging," said Jazwinski.

Still, some scientists believe diet can hasten or hinder the physiological process.

"Restriction of calories in animals does, rodents, it lengthened their life span, postponed the signs and manifestations of aging, including decline in learning and memory," said Jazwinski.

"It's clear in all of the animal studies that caloric restriction is going to lower that oxidative stress, improve brain function, and do all sorts of healthy things for the animals," said Sothern.

As a vital organ, the brain utilizes calories.

"Absolutely, the brain burns calories, just like every other part of the body," said Sothern.

"The brain is the driver. It's always functioning," said Dr. Jazwinski.

But despite its critical role in the body, the brain does not chew up enough calories to counteract the consequences of habitual over-consumption which can leave the body in a "stressed out" condition.

"Too many calories turn the body into a machine against itself. Again, too many calories is associated with high oxidation, high free radical production ... How does that affect the brain? Well, the brain responds to these high oxidant chemicals by not being able to regenerate itself," said Sothern.

And the lack of regeneration of brain cells is not beneficial on any level.

"Either they stop functioning properly, or in some cases they actually reduce in size. The cells diminish in size, and so depending on the part of the brain where this happens, you can lose cognitive abilities, or the ability to learn, and remember, you can lose the ability to fight off depression and anxiety," said Sothern.

We took the theory of brain shrinkage being related to caloric intake to some locals who were wolfing down po-boys outside a restaurant.

"I'm no nutritionist, but it sounds right that if you're putting undue stress on the rest of your body, it's going to affect the rest of your body as well," said Mike White after he finished his  sandwich.

There is also research that says diets high in carbohydrates and low in fats and proteins may increase the risk for dementia, or cognitive impairment.

"A lot of times in high-carbohydrate diets, protein is limited, and the brain will shrink if you don't take in enough protein," Sothern said.

"On the other hand, there are also studies that argue that high protein diets lead to Alzheimer's Disease, so for every study that you cite I can provide another one that essentially claims something that's the opposite," Jazwinski said.

In fact, Jazwinkski is not sold on the correlations recent studies make between brain shrinkage and caloric intake.

"I'll say that the jury is out. I don't think that this is as clear as it sounds. Clearly, if you have an excess consumption of calories, you're going to affect all body functions in a negative way, including the brain, but does it specifically target the brain and shrinkage. I'm not convinced, Jazwinski said.

"We don't have that many studies in humans, but at least six or seven have been published, and they've documented some of the benefits of reducing calories," said Sothern.

And she said most of the studies involving humans that focus on brain shrinkage tend to document what is happening chemically in the brain by measuring blood, or through brain-imaging techniques.

But experts said going overboard, in terms of limiting how much you eat, is not good for your brain, either.

"Because if you reduce your calories so far that you're malnourished, and especially if you don't take in enough protein, that actually has a detrimental effect on all of the body's organs, including the brain," Sothern said.

"The major source of energy in the brain is glucose, so it's sort of a double-edged sword. If you have too low glucose, you can actually enter into a coma," said Jazwinkski.

Both Southern and Jazwinski recommend a balanced diet.

"And if you have too many calories, it really doesn't matter whether we're talking about too much carbohydrate, too much fat, too much protein. Excess is excess," said Jazwinski.

Sothern hopes the emerging research on the brain and food intake will alter mindsets.

"Even though it's what they consider might be healthy is going to trigger this response that's going to limit the brain from regenerating, maybe individuals will think for another reason why they shouldn't take in so much food," Sothern said.

"Exercise, I think, is the best doctor. Exercise actually produces neurogenesis in the brain, in other words, production of new neurons," Jazwinski said.

Differing views aside on the brain and how its cognitive functions are affected by diet, the mounting research does fuel questions.

"Are you eating the right foods to keep the brain cells multiplying, to keep the brain healthy, so that it doesn't shrink?" said Sothern.

Sothern suggests if individuals don't know how many calories they're consuming every day that they visit a nutritionist because many people far exceed the daily recommended amount.

She said it is a good idea to limit high-calorie snacks, while she urges the consumption of fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants. She suggests using one's fist size to gauge how large food portions should be.

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