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Your Brain on Cheeseburgers: High-Fat Diet and Cognitive Decline

By HERWriter
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Cheeseburgers and Your Brain: High Fat Link to Cognitive Decline Arman Zhenikeyev/Fotolia

You may have felt it after a rare indulgence in fast food — a slowing down, not just physically, but mentally. It turns out research supports the connection between your cheeseburger binge and foggy thinking. A recent study finds that fat is bad for our brains.

During the study, researchers put one group of mice on a diet composed of about 10 percent of calories from saturated fat. The other ate a fast-food type diet of 60 percent fat. Both diets had similar levels macronutrients and protein so that all other dietary factors were equal. (1)

Scientists checked the weight, food intake, insulin and serum glucose levels of the mice at four, eight and 12 weeks. They also took note of markers in the hippocampus, the region in the brain where learning and memory take place.

Here’s what happened. Microglia are the immune cells of the brain. When activated by disease, microglia find injured neurons in the brain and strip away synapses, the connections between neurons. Microglia remove weak connections that can impede brain function. (2)

Normally, microglia buzz busily about the brain keeping things in order, removing damage. A high-fat diet creates inflammation throughout the body (3) and, scientists have discovered, the same holds true for the brain.

A high-fat diet that leads to obesity sets the microglia on an indiscriminate warpath. Instead of focusing on injured neurons only, the microglia attack them all.

Neuroscientist Dr. Alexis M. Stranahan, corresponding author of the study, shared with Science Daily, "When you get out to 12 weeks, you start seeing great increases in peripheral obesity. While you don't see insulin resistance, you also start seeing loss of synapses and increases in inflammatory cytokines in the brain," reported Stranahan.

This means an inflamed brain is a brain losing synapses, and lost synapses mean slower cognition. Stranahan offered this metaphor: "Instead of doing garbage disposal, [the microglia] are taking your mailbox, your front door, your kitchen sink and all the stuff that you need, and not doing their job of getting rid of trash."

The good news? You can restart your brain by returning to a low-fat diet. Half of the high-fat diet mice were switched to a low-fat diet, reversing the effects of cognitive decline as their weight normalized.

Those mice who stayed on the high-fat diet experienced continued synapse reduction and cognitive decline.

There is one interesting note for the calories-in/calories-out weight loss advocates. The mice on both the high-fat and low-fat diets were eating the same number of calories. Meaning, diet composition, not just caloric intake is integral to weight loss and gain. (1)

So 300 calories of veggies really are more beneficial than that cheeseburger.

Be well and eat your vegetables.


1) High-fat diet prompts immune cells to start eating connections between neurons. ScienceDaily.com. Retrieved December 15, 2015.

2) Rise of the Microglia. ScientificAmerican.com Retrieved December 15, 2015.

3) A Mechanism by Which Fat Causes Chronic Inflammation. fightaging.org. Retrieved december 16, 2015.

Reviewed December 17, 2015
by Michele Blacksberg RN

Add a Comment3 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

Yes, I've experienced the exact opposite. Brain clarity and productivity since going on a high fat, low carb, MEDIUM protein diet. Not measured using any scientific chemsitry, but just how I actually feel. And everyone else I know on keto feels the same.

Articles like that are what are causing american obesity. Fat the macronutrient is NOT equal to fat as in obesity. Let's call it lipids from now on

January 21, 2016 - 7:57pm

The article is presenting the results of peer-reviewed, scientific studies on the effect of a high fat diet on cognition. Not on weight loss or energy.

January 21, 2016 - 7:55pm
EmpowHER Guest

WOW... that's REALLY interesting, since I have experienced exactly the opposite. I dumped my low-fat diet for a ketogenic diet, which is high fat, moderate protein and very low carbohydrate, and lost 28 lbs. doubled my energy, improved all my lab tests and never felt better. I know for a fact that what you're pushing is NOT best for everyone.

January 21, 2016 - 5:26pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.


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