Is Obesity Draining your Brain Power?

Is Obesity Draining your Brain Power?

Need some extra motivation to take off those excess pounds? We’ve got it for you! A report reveals, for the first time, that there’s a direct link between excess belly fat and brain drain -- and how to stop it. We know that carrying extra lbs of belly fat can raise your odds of dementia. But now, a well-designed lab study (on mice) has found that deep abdominal fat pours inflammatory chemicals into your bloodstream that then cross the blood/brain barrier, causing dementia.

Until now, we thought the blood/brain barrier protected the brain’s gray cells from this particular form of inflammatory assault. But, it turns out that compounds secreted by excess belly fat weaken this barrier, so fat-triggered inflammation oozes into the brain, dumbing down your hippocampus (a relay station for memories), slowing mental processing, hindering recall, and allowing dementia to develop. Up until now scientists weren’t sure which came first, dementia or brain inflammation.

But there’s a bright side. (That’s why the mouse study is really big news.) The researchers say if you put the creatures on a daily exercise program, it tamps down inflammation, restores a strong blood/brain barrier and improves mental sharpness. (“I remember where the cheese is!”)

Why believe a mouse study? Two reasons. 1) In mice and men, the blood/brain barrier acts very similarly; and 2) you can cause mice to pack on belly fat and then observe the effects, but you can’t do that with people.

True, you can’t be certain things happen exactly the same way in human brains, but the evidence is strong enough for the study’s lead researcher to suggest exactly what we suggest: Get moving -- especially if you’re carrying extra weight around your middle!

So here are five ways to trim your tummy and have a leaner, more nimble brain:

  1. Say yes to exercise. A 30-minute daily walk plus 20-30 minutes of strength training twice a week is a great start. You want to head for 10,000 total steps (or step-equivalents) a day. Activity boosts levels of a brain and spinal cord protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which helps grow new brain cells and healthy new connections between them. Exercise also helps two areas important for memory and emotional intelligence--the hippocampus and anterior cingulate cortex -- get bigger and better connected.
  2. Say no to palm and coconut oil. These tropical plant oils that contain saturated fat have been at the center of debate for several years now, but a one study settles the spat. Lose them. They promote body fat in the worst possible spots: Your abdomen and your liver.
  3. Banish food felons that “feed” belly fat. Skip added sugars, syrups, and refined grains such as white bread and white rice. They’re packed with empty calories that take your blood sugar on a roller-coaster ride, fueling cravings. Steer clear of trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils) found in some baked goods and other processed foods. They don’t just send new fat to your belly–they make fat from other places land there too.
  4. Go for 100% whole grains and healthful omega fats. Getting three servings of whole grains (like 100% whole-wheat bread, barley, and oatmeal) could slash belly fat by 10 percent -- but only if you also limit refined grains to one serving or less per day. Using olive oil, munching a few nuts, and sliding sliced avocado into your sandwich instead of cheese all help, too. These contain the omega-3 fatty acids that encourage your body to store fat elsewhere. Nice trick!
  5. Traveling or just busy? Pack road food. A steady diet of fast food could increase belly fat by up to 41 percent in just one month! Invest in a good cooler and load it with fat-fighting goodies – like blueberries, cherries, strawberries and raspberries, caffeinated coffee and green tea. Rich in plant compounds that turn up your body’s antioxidant defenses, these treats help your body burn off abdominal fat, too.

Medically reviewed in September 2019.

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