Warning! Junk foods can harm a teen’s brain
Though hard to resist, these foods pose risks to learning and mental health
“You are what you eat.” When people say that, they mean a healthy diet can boost your health. But the opposite is also true. In fact, if you’re between the ages of 10 and 19, eating too much junk food can harm your body and your brain.
Junk food shapes adolescent brains in ways that impair their ability to think, learn and remember. It can also make it harder to control impulsive behaviors, says Amy Reichelt. It may even up a teen’s risk of depression and anxiety, she notes.
Reichelt is a brain and nutrition specialist at Canada’s Western University in London, Ontario. Adolescents are more sensitive than any other age group to foods with a lot of processed fat and sugar, she says. She is part of a group of scientists around the world who have been studying why.
She and two other researchers at Western recently reviewed more than 100 studies (including their own) about how poor food choices can impact adolescent brains. They described what they learned in the May issue of The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health.
One problem: Adolescent brains are not yet fully formed. And that actually leads to three problems in one, says Reichelt. First, adolescent brains are still developing the ability to assess risks and control actions. Second, teen brains get more pleasure than adult brains do from rewarding behaviors such as eating junk food. Third, adolescent brains can be more easily influenced by their environment. This can include any stress you’re feeling, any isolation or any drugs you may be taking. It can also be influenced by diet. Together, these all can combine to make junk food both hard to resist and extra bad for teen health.
Brains under construction
Let’s break that down, starting with preteen and teen behaviors. The brain region that tells us we shouldn’t eat chips all the time — and helps us resist that urge — is the last to mature. Called the prefrontal cortex, this region doesn’t fully develop until we are in our early 20s.
Brain imaging studies show that the prefrontal cortex turns on when we weigh risks and make decisions about how to act.
“Most of our complex brain functions happen in the prefrontal cortex,” says Reichelt. This includes complex math and reading. But she notes that it also includes “how to assess risky behavior.”
At the same time, teen brains get more buzz from rewards. Unlike the prefrontal cortex, the parts of the brain that make us feel good when we do something pleasurable — like eating tasty foods or being with friends — are fully developed by the teen years.
In fact, these regions are even more sensitive when we are young. That’s because of a natural chemical called dopamine . Dopamine is sometimes called the “feel good” chemical. It lifts our mood when we experience something rewarding. And it is especially active in adolescent brains.
As a neurotransmitter, it zips across the spaces between brain cells. Once it arrives at a new cell, dopamine binds to docking stations there. These molecules are known as receptors. When dopamine docks, those receptors relay the “feel good” signal from the last cell to this new one. That tells the brain that whatever it just experienced is worth getting more of. Adolescents have more dopamine receptors in the brain than do adults. So they get more good vibes from anything they find enjoyable.
The teen brain, thus, has two strikes against it when it comes to resisting junk food. “It has a heightened drive for rewards and reduced self-regulation,” says Reichelt.
That’s a big problem for adolescents because of the third issue: Growing brains can be more easily changed by eating high-fat, high-sugar foods. That’s what Reichelt and her team discovered in their studies of “teenage” mice.
Mouse brains on fat and sugar
Since mouse brains develop very much like our own, they can be used to understand how what we eat affects the human brain. In 2017, Reichelt was part of a team that fed adolescent mice high-fat foods to see how it affected their brains.
One group of mice ate a diet in which 63 percent of their calories came from fat. (That’s a lot of fat. It would be like eating bacon cheeseburgers and ice cream every day.) A second group ate a healthy diet.
As expected, mice eating high-fat food gained weight and put on body fat. But that was not all. These mice also performed worse on memory tests than did mice eating a normal diet.
The researchers tested the mice for what’s known as working memory. It’s the type that allows us to hold onto information long enough to use it. For example, working memory helps you remember which five things you need to buy at the store. Or what time you said you’d meet your friends. It’s also important for reasoning and decision-making. And it involves the prefrontal cortex — that’s the same brain area that helps make decisions.
Reichelt and her team used two different tests to gauge this working memory. In the first, they put the animals in a Y-shaped maze. Each mouse started in the center of the Y shape. From there they were free to explore two of the three arms of the maze. The third arm was blocked off.
Then the researchers opened up the maze’s third arm. Mice will naturally explore their environment and are drawn to new things. Given the chance, they should prefer to visit a new arm of the maze rather than one they’ve already explored. Or they would if they could remember which arms of the maze they had already visited.
Mice eating a healthy diet behaved as expected. They chose to explore the new arm of the maze. But those eating a high-fat diet did not prefer any one arm. The fact they explored all three at random seemed to show they could not remember which parts of the maze they had seen already.
The second test used a maze set up in a tank of murky water. The end of the maze is a platform just under the water’s surface. To get out of the water, a mouse must navigate to the platform by remembering landmarks. (The mice are scooped up to avoid drowning if they can’t find their way.)
Mice fed a healthy diet performed much better than did those eating high-fat chow. The fatter mice were just as good at swimming; they just did not find their way to the platform. This suggests they could not remember the landmarks.
Then the researchers looked at the animals’ brains. Here they found important differences in reelin, a chemical that helps brain cells chat with each other. Mice on high-fat chow had roughly 35 percent less reelin in their prefrontal cortex compared to mice on a healthy diet. The high-fat diet may have made the prefrontal cortex in these mice work less effectively.
People with brain diseases (such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) often have lower levels of reelin, too, says Reichelt. “We can’t blame that on junk food in adolescence,” she says. “But it may be a contributing factor [to risk of disease].”
Reichelt found similar behavioral effects in adolescent rats that got daily access to a sugary drink. They showed less desire to explore new things than did rats not fed sugar.
Each rat had been placed in an enclosed square area with different objects in each corner. The rats could explore all four objects. The researchers then removed the rats from the pen for five minutes and swapped the locations of two objects. Then each rat returned to the enclosure. Animals not fed sugar spent more time exploring objects that were now in a new place. This suggests they could tell the objects had been moved. But the sugar-fed rats spent just as much time with the unmoved objects as they did with the changed ones. It seems they couldn’t tell what had been moved.
Human brains on junk food
Other researchers have found links between brain health and what teenage kids eat. Felice Jacka is one of them. She is an expert in nutrition and psychiatry at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia.
In one 2013 study, she and her team recruited more than 2,000 11- to 14-year-olds living in London, England. Each answered questions about what they ate and how they felt, mentally. The kids were asked how many servings of fruits and vegetables they ate each day. They also were asked how often they ate chips, candy, cookies, fried foods and sugary soft drinks. Then they were sorted into five groups, depending on how healthy their diets were.
Next, the adolescents answered 13 questions designed to figure out if they suffered from depression. The questions asked about their emotions and behavior over the previous two weeks. They were phrased as statements. The kids described if those statements were true, not true or sometimes true. Questions ranged from “I feel miserable or unhappy” and “I didn’t enjoy anything at all” to “I felt so tired, I just sat around and did nothing.”
The researchers scored each kid’s answers for signs of depression. Adolescents who ate the most junk food were nearly 50 percent more likely to show signs of depression.
Why might eating junk food be linked to depression? The data are unclear. Some research suggests that processed foods, such as lunch meat, increases inflammation in the body and the brain. Inflammation is one of the body’s responses to cellular injury and involves swelling. Other research has linked inflammation with depression. In one study, researchers found that people with depression had 30 percent more brain inflammation than did people who were not depressed.
Good fat, bad fat
The good news is that you can make food choices that support a healthy brain.
“The brain is the most fat-rich organ we have,” notes Alexandra Richardson. She is an expert in how diet affects the brain and a researcher at the University of Oxford in England. “And where does it get its fats? From what we put in our bodies.”
But not all fats are the same. Our brains need a type known as omega-3 fats. These helpful fats are found in fish, flaxseed and some oils. These fats help build the membrane that surrounds brain cells. Brain cells need membranes to hold them together and to communicate well with each other.
In one 2005 study, Richardson and her team showed improved mental health in children who took omega-3 supplements. The 117 children who took part were between the ages of five and 12. All had problems with attention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. They also struggled with reading and spelling.
Over three months, about half the children took omega-3 pills. The others took look-alike pills with no fats. Such inactive “treatments” are known as placebos. Compared to kids who got the placebo, those who took omega-3 pills showed improved attention and ability to control their hyperactive, impulsive behavior. Their reading and spelling scores also went up. This may have reflected being able to pay closer attention in class.
Junk food may trigger attention-related problems because it does not contain the good fats needed to build healthy brain cells, says Richardson. But downing foods with more good fats can support healthy brains.
Exercise for your brain
Research shows exercise can be a good way to fend off damage from junk food, notes Cassandra Lowe. She works at Western University, where together with Reichelt she has studied kids’ brain and nutrition.
Two important things happen in the brain when we exercise. The first is that the brain’s reward system — the one that feels good when we do something we like — becomes less sensitive to food cues. While scientists don’t quite know why, the outcome is a good thing. “We don’t find high-calorie foods as rewarding,” explains Lowe.
Exercise also triggers the body to make a protein called BDNF. That stands for brain-derived neurotrophic factor. BDNF helps brain cells grow. It also strengthens links between them.
This means exercise can boost strong connections between the prefrontal cortex and other brain regions. When that happens, the prefrontal cortex “can exert control better,” says Lowe. In other words, better connections help us weigh risks, make informed decisions on how to act, and curb our impulses.
What is the take-home message for kids? Many already know that junk food can make people fat and physically unhealthy, says Richardson. Most don’t often understand that it also can lead to unhealthy brains.
Processed and fried foods, such as cold cuts, store-bought baked goods, candy and chips don’t have many of the nutrients our bodies and brains need, Richardson says. Kids need to understand that they tend to be rich both in calories and in “concoctions of chemicals that do not support human health — physical or mental.”
adolescence: A transitional stage of physical and psychological development that begins at the onset of puberty, typically between the ages of 11 and 13, and ends with adulthood.
adolescent: Someone in that transitional stage of physical and psychological development that begins at the onset of puberty, typically between the ages of 11 and 13, and ends with adulthood.
bipolar disorder: Also known as manic-depressive illness, this mental illness causes individuals to experience periodic swings in mood, energy and activity levels. In one phase, someone may feel intense joy and actively engage in lots of activities and interactions with other people. Later (sometimes only a day or two later), the individual can enter a period of intense depression. Now the patient is sad, may have no interest in seeing or talking to others and may want to just lay low, indoors and alone. This disease tends to run in families, suggesting there may be a genetic vulnerability. Fortunately, there are a number of treatments for this disease.
calorie: The amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. It is typically used as a measurement of the energy contained in some defined amount of food. The exception: when referring to the energy in food, the convention is to call a kilocalorie, or 1,000 of these calories, a "calorie." Here, a food calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise 1 kilogram of water 1 degree C.
cell: The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the unaided eye, it consists of a watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall.
chemical: A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O.
depression: (in medicine) A mental illness characterized by persistent sadness and apathy. Although these feelings can be triggered by events, such as the death of a loved one or the move to a new city, that isn’t typically considered an “illness” — unless the symptoms are prolonged and harm an individual’s ability to perform normal daily tasks (such as working, sleeping or interacting with others). People suffering from depression often feel they lack the energy needed to get anything done. They may have difficulty concentrating on things or showing an interest in normal events. Many times, these feelings seem to be triggered by nothing; they can appear out of nowhere.
diet: The foods and liquids ingested by an animal to provide the nutrition it needs to grow and maintain health. (verb) To adopt a specific food-intake plan for the purpose of controlling body weight.
disorder: (in medicine) A condition where the body does not work appropriately, leading to what might be viewed as an illness. This term can sometimes be used interchangeably with disease.
dopamine: A neurotransmitter, this chemical helps transmit signals in the brain.
environment: The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature and humidity (or even the placement of things in the vicinity of an item of interest).
fat: A natural oily or greasy substance occurring in plants and in animal bodies, especially when deposited as a layer under the skin or around certain organs. Fat’s primary role is as an energy reserve. Fat also is a vital nutrient, though it can be harmful if consumed in excessive amounts.
gauge: (v. to gauge) The act of measuring or estimating the size of something.
impulsive: (n. impulsivity) Quick to act; not willing to wait. Not waiting for deliberation or a weighing of consequences.
impulsivity: To react to some event or suggestion without regard to the potential long-term consequences of this decision.
inflammation: (adj. inflammatory) The body’s response to cellular injury and obesity; it often involves swelling, redness, heat and pain. It also is an underlying feature responsible for the development and aggravation of many diseases, especially heart disease and diabetes.
membrane: A barrier which blocks the passage (or flow through) of some materials depending on their size or other features. Membranes are an integral part of filtration systems. Many serve that same function as the outer covering of cells or organs of a body.
mental health: A term for someone’s emotional, psychological and social well-being. It refers to how people behave on their own and how they interact with others. It includes how people make choices, handle stress and manage fear or anxiety. Poor mental health can be triggered by disease or merely reflect a short-term response to life’s challenges. It can occur in people of any age, from babies to the elderly.
molecule: An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).
nutrient: A vitamin, mineral, fat, carbohydrate or protein that a plant, animal or other organism requires as part of its food in order to survive.
nutrition: (adj. nutritious) The healthful components (nutrients) in the diet — such as proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals — that the body uses to grow and to fuel its processes. A scientist who works in this field is known as a nutritionist.
organ: (in biology) Various parts of an organism that perform one or more particular functions. For instance, an ovary is an organ that makes eggs, the brain is an organ that makes sense of nerve signals and a plant’s roots are organs that take in nutrients and moisture.
placebo: A substance that has no therapeutic effect, used as a control in testing new drugs.
prefrontal cortex: A region containing some of the brain’s gray matter. Located behind the forehead, it plays a role in making decisions and other complex mental activities, in emotions and in behaviors.
processed foods: Foods purchased from a grocery story that are substantially different from the raw materials that went into them. Examples include most foods that come in cans, bottles, boxes or bags. Examples include breakfast cereals, frozen pizzas, canned tuna, jars of spaghetti sauce and dill pickles.
protein: A compound made from one or more long chains of amino acids. Proteins are an essential part of all living organisms. They form the basis of living cells, muscle and tissues; they also do the work inside of cells. Among the better-known, stand-alone proteins are the hemoglobin (in blood) and the antibodies (also in blood) that attempt to fight infections. Medicines frequently work by latching onto proteins.
psychiatry: (adj. psychiatric) A field of medicine where doctors study and treat diseases of the human mind. Treatments may consist of talking therapies, prescription drugs or both. People who work in this field are known as psychiatrists.
receptor: (in biology) A molecule in cells that serves as a docking station for another molecule. That second molecule can turn on some special activity by the cell.
reward system: (Also reward center) A region of the brain that processes the pleasant reactions we get when we get smiles, gifts, pleasurable stimuli (including food) or compliments.
schizophrenia: A serious brain disorder that can lead to hallucinations, delusions and other uncontrolled behaviors.
supplement: (in nutrition) Something taken in pill or liquid form — often a vitamin or mineral — to improve the diet. For instance, it may provide more of some nutrient that is believed to benefit health. It may also provide some substance to the diet that is claimed to promote health.
working memory: The ability to hold something in the mind for a short period of time and to adapt it for use, such as hearing a sequence of numbers, then reciting them backwards.
“The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.” – Ann Wigmore