Are Sweets Making You Stupid?

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What you eat may affect how you learn, say UCLA researchers in a new study on the effects of fructose and omega-3 fatty acids on the behavior of rats.

Rats that were fed only fructose and standard rat chow had more trouble navigating a maze at the end of six weeks than rats who were fed a diet supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids, according to results published in the Journal of Physiology.

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"Our findings illustrate that what you eat affects how you think," said Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a professor of neurosurgery and integrative biology and physiology. "Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain's ability to learn and remember information. But adding omega-3 fatty acids to your meals can help minimize the damage."

The animals trained on a maze with visual landmarks twice daily for five days before starting the experimental diet. Six weeks later, the researchers tested the rats' ability to recall the route and escape the maze.

"The second group of rats navigated the maze much faster than the rats that did not receive omega-3 fatty acids," Gomez-Pinilla said. "The DHA-deprived animals were slower, and their brains showed a decline in synaptic activity. Their brain cells had trouble signaling each other, disrupting the rats' ability to think clearly and recall the route they'd learned six weeks earlier."

The faster rats received omega-3 fatty acids in the form of flaxseed oil and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which protects against damage to the brain's synapses, or chemical connections. The DHA-deprived rats also developed signs of resistance to insulin.

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"Our findings suggest that consuming DHA regularly protects the brain against fructose's harmful effects," said Gomez-Pinilla. "It's like saving money in the bank. You want to build a reserve for your brain to tap when it requires extra fuel to fight off future diseases."

Still, no matter how much salmon we eat, we should also avoid sweets most of the time — and not just high-fructose corn syrup, Gomez-Pinilla told the Los Angeles Times. High-fructose corn syrup has taken most of the bad rap lately, because it's added to so many foods, but that doesn't give regular white sugar a pass.