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Healthy diet

The #1 Worst Food For Your Child's Brain, Says Study

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kids eating chips

Making the right food choices for your children can be difficult, especially if you’re not sure what is healthy or unhealthy for their development.

This can be especially intimidating when you think about the importance of their developmental stages and the role that diet can play in these periods of growth, not only with physical development but mental and behavioral as well.

According to a 2020 report published in The Lancet: Child & Adolescent Health, the absolute worst type of food for your child’s brain is junk food.

Continue reading to learn more about the report’s findings, and for more healthy eating tips, make sure to check out 68 “Healthy” Foods That Are Terrible For You.

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Three brain and nutrition researchers from Western University in London, Ontario reviewed over 100 different studies for this report. The studies, which included some of the researchers’ own previous work, investigated how poor diet choices can affect children and the adolescent brain.

Luckybar is for kids of all ages held by two preteen girls on swingset
Kristin Forbes

The report found that children and teens consume extremely large amounts of calorie-dense junk food, which negatively impacts their brain development.

This is largely because the adolescent brain is still developing its pre-frontal cortex, the part of your brain that is responsible for memory, attention, and impulse control.

According to the study, junk food’s effect on a developing pre-frontal cortex can negatively impact your child’s ability to “self-regulate” their food choices.

Young girl looking bored while playing at a school desk.
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This report also emphasizes that because of the way junk food might impair a child’s ability to control their eating, higher consumption of this food is known to lead to unhealthier eating choices into adulthood, which may contribute to obesity later on.

Not only can it have consequences on impulse control, but a separate cohort study from Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology found that poor diet quality in adolescents was also linked to higher instances of depression.

And a new study from the University of Georgia found that added sugar in childhood may possibly lead to memory impairment in adulthood. However, this study was performed on mice, so more research still needs to be done.

child holding strawberry
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So with all of this information, how can you make the necessary changes to your child’s diet to ensure their brains are in good hands?

A review from 2017 states that a healthy diet for a child’s development includes plenty of nutrients such as protein, carbohydrates (not refined carbs), healthy fats, iron, vitamins A, C, and D, and B vitamins.

Medical News Today suggests foods such as leafy greens, Greek yogurt, fatty fish, and eggs as a part of a healthy diet for your child’s brain.

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Healthy diet

What Happens To Your Body When You're Hangry

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hangry

One minute you’re out for a walk, happily engaged in conversation—and the next, you’ve turned into a crazy monster with a grumbling stomach who snaps when your friend accidentally brushes against you. Or you’re at the deli, finally next in line, and that woman’s indecisiveness makes you want to scream in a fit of rage “JUST PICK SOMETHING!”

Sound familiar? If it does, you’re not alone. You’ve likely experienced hanger—anger fueled by hunger—a phenomenon where people become grumpy and short-tempered (Read: turn into ravenous, crazy people) when they’re overdue for a snack and their blood sugar is running low. It feels like your stomach is about to eat itself, your brain feels like it’s in a fog, and your body feels drained. Not only is hanger extremely uncomfortable (for you and whomever the poor soul is who happens to be near you at the time), but it can also lead to heightened food cravings, putting you at risk of reaching for an unhealthy snack and making less-than-optimal food choices.

So, what is it that makes us like this and what’s really going on when we’re hangry—let’s find out!

RELATED: Eating Habits to Lose Abdominal Fat As You Age, Say Dietitians

When we eat food, the region of our brain that processes pleasure and reward lights up as the fats and sugars of the meal release chemicals known as opioids that bind with receptors in the brain. You read that right. These are the same type of signaling chemicals as drugs. In turn, this triggers the release of dopamine, one of the feel-good hormones that regulate things like emotion, behavior, alertness, and impulsivity. It’s the same hormone that is released when we fall in love, gamble, have sex, and partake in drugs and alcohol (and what ultimately plays a part in addiction). So, because consuming food is related to making you happy, your brain wants you to continuously repeat that pleasurable feeling. And you’re keeping it from doing that. (Psst! When you do finally eat, check out these 23 Foods That Happy People Eat!)

Hangry stomach

What happens when you don’t get food? It all starts with ghrelin. When the stomach is empty, it releases ghrelin, the hunger hormone. Ghrelin is produced in the gut in response to your standard meal schedule—as well as at the mere sight or smell of food—and is designed to signal your brain that your body needs more energy or food. When ghrelin hits the brain, it hits areas that control your body’s automatic processes, metabolism, and the reward center we just mentioned. When ghrelin causes all that stimulation, your brain has to listen. And it usually does so by making you eat food. So when you’re depriving that sensation, you’re really ticking off your brain.

Hangry reward
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Ghrelin’s role in controlling the reward center of your brain is pretty powerful, and, as it turns out, might be one of the contributing factors to your hangriness. According to a study in the journal Neuropharmacology, when researchers stimulated mice with systemic ghrelin (which should tell their brains to eat) but did not actually provide any food for them to nosh on, the dopamine levels in their brain didn’t just stay the same, they actually decreased.

Hangry out of control
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Because dopamine is a neurotransmitter that aids in improving mental function and concentration, just that slight change in dopamine levels that you might experience by depriving yourself of food can affect your ability to concentrate and focus on daily work. Furthermore, this neurotransmitter is also in charge of keeping emotions in check, so low dopamine can mean you have less control over your anger.

Other people who have decreased levels of dopamine? People who are going through alcohol or drug withdrawals. And they commonly experience irritability, mental confusion, anxiety, agitation, and slowness in thought. So when you try to ignore your body’s messages that you need to eat, your hanger may be coming from a place of addition and withdrawal.

Hangry angry
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Another reason you get hangry is also tied to the hunger hormone. After ghrelin is produced in the gut and travels to the brain, the brain then commands the release of a second hormone called neuropeptide Y, which stimulates appetite. This natural brain chemical has several functions, including increasing food intake as well as regulating anger and aggression, and it seems like the two are linked. According to a study in the journal Biological Psychiatry, people with high levels of neuropeptide Y in their cerebrospinal fluid had more measures of aggression and impulsivity as well as impulsive aggression. So it certainly makes sense that high levels of nY caused by hunger can lead people to become a bit hangry.

Hangry brainfood
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While many hormonal changes contribute to hanger, basic body functions do as well. After we eat, our bodies digest food into its basic parts: protein to amino acids, fats to fatty acids, and carbs to glucose. Glucose is our body’s primary unit of energy (followed by fatty acids or lipids). As our body digests glucose, it enters into the bloodstream to help feed our organs and tissues. After around 6 hours, your blood glucose levels become too low to provide adequate energy. While other organs can use different nutrients to continue to function, your brain critically depends on glucose. In fact, 25 percent of the energy you get from food is used for your brain alone. So when the sugar in your bloodstream goes down, so does your brainpower. Feel like you’re lacking in mental acuity? Don’t miss out on these 10 Best Brainpower-Boosting Secrets.

Hangry couple shouting
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Low blood sugar can have a particularly large effect on high-level tasks and emotions that require the most amount of energy, like self-control and anger. When your brain lacks adequate fuel, the part of the brain responsible for curtailing angry impulses doesn’t have enough resources to exert self-control. For example: In a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that married couples get increasingly angry and mean towards one another—via pin pricking a spousal voodoo doll and blasting opponents with loud noises—when their blood sugar was low.

It’s not just married couples either. Researchers at Florida State University who reviewed studies on the subject were able to link glucose with being the primary source of self-control. They found depressed glucose levels were associated with increased irritability around others, over-the-top anger, and general anxiety, while restoring glucose levels through either giving participants a sugary snack or upping their levels of insulin—the hormone which helps your body store glucose—were able to sufficiently improve self-control.

Hangry stress
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If your blood-glucose levels fall far enough, your brain will perceive it as a life-threatening situation. In turn, your brain instructs several organs in your body to synthesize and release hormones that increase the amount of glucose in your bloodstream. This effect, called the glucose counter-regulatory response, causes your body to increase production of hormones that can directly signal the conversion of stored glycogen into glucose, like the hormone glucagon, but also the stress hormones adrenaline (aka epinephrine aka the fight-or-flight hormone) and cortisol—known as “the belly fat hormone” for its ability to trigger hunger and pull lipids from the bloodstream and store them in our fat cells.

These stress hormones are released in all sorts of stressful situations, not just during the stress of low blood glucose levels. And just as you might instinctively shout out in anger at someone when your stress hormones are heightened during a dangerous situation, the flood of adrenaline you get when you become hangry can promote a similar response. Feeling stressed in general? Don’t miss these Teas for Weight Loss That Combat Stress!

Hangry choline
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Even though your brain is attempting to use all of these hormones to alleviate your hunger, your body might not even have the proper building blocks to make these hormones. Dietary nutrients such as tyrosine, tryptophan, and choline provide the building blocks for certain mood-regulating neurotransmitters. The catch? Your body can only get these nutrients from food. You’re probably familiar with choline, a nutrient found in egg yolks which is required to synthesize acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that plays important roles in arousal, attention, motivation, and muscle-activation. High tyrosine levels allow neurons to manufacture dopamine, which we’ve already covered, and tryptophan is the precursor for serotonin, a calming neurotransmitter whose low levels are associated with aggressive behavior.

Hangry eating wrong

Our bodies, like cars, need the proper fuel to survive and run efficiently. In this analogy, you probably guessed correctly that fuel is food, and in particular, the unit of energy is glucose. When we put the wrong types of fuels into our bodies, like highly processed foods such as refined sugars and carbs, we’re not giving our body the proper nutrients it needs to function properly. If you rely on pro-inflammatory foods like fast food and processed junk, your body is most likely depleted in antioxidants and phytonutrients from fruits and veggies that help our bodies rid themselves of toxic metabolites.

The moment our digestion stops, our body goes through a period of “cleaning” where our tissues release toxic substances into circulation for removal. Without free-radical-fighting antioxidants to clear them out, your cells have to store these toxic products that build up in the body. A study in Nutrition Journal found that people who were on a low nutrient diet were more likely to feel hungry after a meal and were also more irritable when hungry, as opposed to those on a high-nutrient diet. The researchers speculated that our bodies can become addicted to these toxic metabolites, so when some people feel weak, headachy, tired, or mentally dull after a meal they might confuse it with hunger, but what they really could be experiencing is withdrawal symptoms.

Hangry eat healthy
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As you can see, there are several different pathways and mechanisms at play that might be contributing to your anger when you’re hungry. But lucky for you, the only thing you need to focus on is stuffing your face! While you may have a hankering for the fastest, easiest kind of fuel—like soda or chips—know that grabbing a smoothie or handful of nuts is just as easy. Junky, processed foods may satisfy you right away, but they’ll unavoidably lead to spikes in blood glucose levels that come crashing down—fast. Leaving you even hangrier. Be sure to reach for nutrient-rich, satiating foods high in healthy fats, protein, and fiber.

RELATED: Are You Unhappy? Walk This Far Before Breakfast, Says Science

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Healthy diet

What Happens to Your Gut When You Eat Oatmeal

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eating scoop of oatmeal

If you were to picture what happens when you dig into a bowl of oatmeal in the morning, you might imagine the benefits of each bite dispersing out to various parts of your body. After all, oats are well known for protecting your heart, strengthening your blood vessels, and slimming your waistline. But they also have a lot to offer the body part where they spend the most time: your gut!

As a whole grain food full of fiber, antioxidants, and other nutrients, oatmeal flexes some heavy-duty force for good in your belly. Here’s a look at what this versatile, down-to-earth breakfast food can do as it makes its way through your GI tract. And don’t miss the healthiest way to cook oatmeal!

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If we’re talking gut health, we might as well start with the function that affects us everyday: our bathroom habits. Abundant research has examined how your morning oatmeal bowl could help you while, well, on the bowl. One large systematic review in the British Journal of Nutrition found that, in people with no history of bowel disease, oats and oat bran could significantly increase stool weight and decrease constipation.

It’s likely that the bran portion of the oat grain is responsible for oatmeal’s ability to get things moving. In a 2008 study on nursing home residents, those who received an oat bran supplement were more likely to be able to stop using laxative medications. And it’s not just older people who can benefit from oatmeal’s evacuating effects. A 2020 study on children concluded that oatmeal might reduce constipation symptoms like gas, straining, and a feeling of incomplete evacuation.

woman mixing up bowl of oatmeal
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You may have noticed oatmeal packaging boasting of its soluble fiber content. And it’s true: oatmeal is among the best sources of this nutrient. So what’s the big deal about soluble fiber?

Among its many benefits (like lowering cholesterol and improving blood glucose control), this form of fiber has some pretty special effects on your gut. Because it creates a viscous, gel-like substance in the GI tract, it can actually slow down digestion, keeping you fuller longer.

In fact, research shows that a form of soluble fiber called beta-glucan, especially plentiful in oats, increases the perception of satiety. Besides preventing the annoyance of mid-morning snack cravings, staying full can help you reach your weight loss goals.

Just don’t fall prey to the worst oatmeal habits for weight loss!

Oats Breakfast Habit

We’re not done with you yet, fiber! These days, we all hear a lot about the importance of maintaining a healthy microbiome—AKA the trillions of bacteria inhabiting our gut. One excellent way to boost the health of the all-important microbiome is to feed it the right kind of fiber, known as prebiotic fiber.

Here’s where beta-glucan shines again. As a prebiotic fiber, it’s been shown to help improve the growth and colonization of certain helpful strains of gut bacteria. A microbiome rich in healthy bacteria has been linked to all sorts of health benefits, like reduced risk of type two diabetes, depression, and obesity.

happy healthy gut
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If you live with celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), don’t be surprised if your doctor or dietitian recommends oatmeal for your morning meal. Some research has found that eating more oat bran could result in small improvements in symptoms of ulcerative colitis.

Meanwhile, since oats are gluten-free, they’re an ideal grain for folks with celiac disease. (Just be sure to purchase oatmeal that’s certified gluten-free—otherwise, you may end up with cross-contamination if they’re processed alongside wheat.) It’s even possible that oats’ microbiome-boosting prebiotic fiber could help reduce symptoms of celiac disease—though more research is needed to draw firm conclusions.

On the other hand, if you’re experiencing diarrhea during a celiac or IBD flare, you may prefer to avoid oats for a while. Some people find its soluble fiber to be too much for their GI tract to handle when suffering from loose bowels.

RELATED: What Happens to Your Waistline When You Eat Oatmeal

Sarah Garone, NDTR

Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a registered nutrition and dietetic technician, and a health, nutrition, and food writer. Read more

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