What You Ate as a Teenager Could Impact Your Brain Now

Two teenage girls eating cotton candy.<br>(Photo: Stocksy)
Two teenage girls eating cotton candy.
(Photo: Stocksy)

It’s pretty much a given that teenagers eat junk food as often as they can. And, while junk binging is a normal habit for most teens, new research finds that what kids eat can have a lasting impact on their brains well into adulthood.

For a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers raised mice on a balanced diet up until their teenage years, when some of the mice switched to a diet that wasn’t so balanced and some kept on with their perfectly balanced menu. The teen mice who were fed a poorly rounded diet consumed food that lacked omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids — brain-boosting nutrients that are not produced in the human (or mouse) body but are easily found in fatty fish, walnuts, soybeans, and spinach.

The researchers found that the mice that ate bad diets as teenagers had lowered levels of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in several parts of their brains as adults; including the medial prefrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens. The mice who had stayed on balanced diets, had none of these deficits. In addition, the brains of the mice that had been fed a poor diet had difficulty fine-tuning connections between neurons in those regions of the brain; the mice who had remained on a healthy, balanced diet did not.

As a result, the mice on the bad diet had increased anxiety-like behavior as adults, and performed worse on memory tasks than their healthy-eating counterparts.

Of course, this study was conducted on mice — not humans — and more research needs to be done before scientists can definitively say that eating a poor diet as a teenager makes you more likely to have problems with your behavior and memory down the road. But many studies of human behavior are originally tested on mice, so this might not be too far afield. Additionally, whether or not this study shows a direct corollary to human behavior there is no doubt that what you eat can have an impact on your brain. Doctor Santosh Kesari, MD, PhD, a neurologist and neuro-oncologist and Chair of the Department of Translational Neuro-Oncology and Neurotherapeutics at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. who did not participate in the study, upheld this assertion telling Yahoo Beauty.

“The brain is constantly developing and new connections are being made,” he says. “Whether you’re young, old, or in adolescence, what you eat can have an impact on neurological issues such as anxiety.”

The study’s researchers didn’t investigate whether a poor diet as a teenager has reversible effects on an adult brain, but Kesari suspects that making healthier dietary choices in adulthood could help. “Poor diet can have a long-lasting effect if you don’t fix the underlying issue of the diet,” he says.

That’s why he recommends having omega-3 fatty acids at all stages of life, as well as eating a healthy, well-rounded diet that includes lipids (organic compounds found in olive oil, among other things) and carbohydrates.

The study’s findings don’t mean that everyone who ate a poor diet as a teenager is bound for issues with anxiety and memory — it just may raise your risk. “I suspect some people are more prone than others to developing these issues,” Kesari says.

He stresses the importance of eating well for your brain and overall health: “We don’t pay much attention to diet and healthcare, but this highlights how diet can have significant effects on neurological health and prevent a lot of medical issues in the future.”

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