Want better brain function? Maybe you should lay off the carbs, especially sugar and processed grains.
Recent research from Tufts University links high carbohydrate intake to greater risk of mild cognitive impairment. Diets heavy in sugar and complex carbohydrates, such as processed grains, could particularly contribute to risk by affecting the body’s glucose and insulin metabolism.
“Cognitive deficits have been observed in older people with impaired glucose tolerance, and insulin insensitivity and diabetes are risk factors for cognitive decline and dementia,” said Tammy Scott, PhD, a scientists at Tufts HNRCA Nutrition and Neurocognition Laboratory. “We’re not certain about the mechanisms, but possibilities include increased oxidative stress and impaired transport of glucose to the brain.”
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Researchers at the Mayo Clinic, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, reported that people 70 and older who ate the most carbs in relation to protein and fat were at nearly four times the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment. Risk also rose with a diet heavy in sugar. on the other hand, study participants who consumed more protein and fat relative to carbs were less likely to become cognitively impaired.
“We think it’s important that you eat a healthy balance of protein, carbohydrates and fat,” Roberts said, “because each of these nutrients has an important role in the body.”
In this study, not everyone with mild cognitive impairment went on to develop Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, but many did.
“If we can stop people from developing mild cognitive impairment, we hope we can stop people from developing dementia,” Roberts said.
Participants in the study who reported the highest carbohydrate intake at the beginning of the study were about 2 times likelier to develop mild cognitive impairment. But those with diets high in fat were 42% less likely to suffer cognitive impairment. And those with a higher intake of protein had a relative reduced risk of 21%.
Which Carbs Contribute Most to Cognitive Decline?
- High carbohydrates impact your glucose and insulin metabolism. “Sugar fuels the brain — so moderate intake is good. however, high levels of sugar may actually prevent the brain from using the sugar, similar to what we see with type 2 diabetes,” Roberts said.
- Simple carbohydrates that are low in fiber, such as pasta, white bread and other refined grains, cause spikes in blood sugar because the body quickly converts them into glucose.
- Whole grains, beans and vegetables retain the fiber and nutrients of the grain’s bran and germ, which are lost in processing. Because these carbs are digested slower, they have a less dramatic effect on blood sugar — and thus may be better for the brain.