The term junk food tells the tale, since it truly is junk for your health, your waistline and even your brain. In fact, many people don’t consider the effects of junk food other than what it could mean for their weight, since junk food is packed with empty, unhealthy, fat-building calories. However, junk food’s ugly reach goes beyond just how it can adversely affect weight.
In fact, eating too much junk food not only can make you overweight or obese, it can also sap your energy, damage your heart and liver, lead to unhealthy blood pressure and blood sugar levels as well as other unhealthy consequences, including memory impairment—maybe even permanent memory impairment.
At least that’s what researchers at the University of New South Wales have found. They say that even a short-term stint of eating junk food can have a negative effect on the brain’s cognitive ability. More specifically, they found that just one week of a junk food diet impairs memory—an effect they believe could be permanent. Interestingly, the scientists discovered that similar effects occur with test animals eating a healthy diet but given sugar water as well. The study was published in the journal Brain, Behaviour and Immunity.
This was the first study to show just how fast and severely junk food can affect the brain, perhaps causing irreversible damage. The test animals had more difficulty recognizing specific places after eating junk food. They also had diminished ability to notice when an object shifted to a new location. Additionally, they had inflammation in the hippocampal region of the brain, which, by the way, is associated with spatial memory. That makes sense, too, since junk food is notorious for fueling unhealthy inflammation levels in the body.
Professor Margaret Morris from UNSW Medicine, who co-authored the study, remarked, “What is so surprising about this research is the speed with which the deterioration of the cognition occurred. Our preliminary data also suggests that the damage is not reversed when the rats are switched back to a healthy diet, which is very concerning.” She concludes, “We suspect these findings may be relevant to people.”
Here’s why the findings may be relevant to people, too. Scientists often choose rats as test animals since their physiology is similar to humans. They have similar organs, body plans, hormones and nervous systems. That’s why the researchers are concerned that these effects may also be relevant to humans eating a junk food diet.
Ongoing research and work continues to see how to stop inflammation in the brains of animals with the unhealthy diets, which could translate into how to help humans who also eat—or have eaten—unhealthily and have these effects.
In the meantime, it’s wise to stay away from junk foods for various reasons, including the fact that junk food could mean a junk memory.