America has a weight problem. Well, more of an overweight and obese problem. The most recent data indicates 160 million Americans are either overweight or obese, and this is an even bigger problem for our children. Nearly 30% of children under the age of 20 are classified as being obese or overweight, an increase of 11% since 1980. While this may not be news to some, startling studies are showing just how bad the effects of overeating are. Ingesting too much junk food or otherwise excessive calories has extreme effects on the brain. People who overeat are at higher risk of dementia, brain shrinkage, and type 2 diabetes. What’s more, these effects are coming on sooner than we think.

Behind brain health decline

People are eating about 650 extra calories – the equivalent of a hamburger, fries, and soda – each day than adults in the 1970s. This is typically in the form of unhealthy junk foods, which are low in nutrients and high in fats and added sugars.

A team of researchers from Australian National University looked at 200 international studies following brain health and aging of more than 7,000 people. They found that 30% of the world’s adult population is classified as overweight or obese, and more than 10% of adults will suffer from type 2 diabetes by 2030. The increased risk of type 2 diabetes can be attributed to the excess calories adults eat today. Long-term type 2 diabetes can be damaging to the brain by changing the brain’s functional connectivity. This causes the brain to shrink, restricts blood flow to the brain, and results in cognitive difficulties. These difficulties can include anything from trouble remembering and learning new things, to major issues with concentration and making decisions. In severe situations, high blood glucose levels from type 2 diabetes can spark the development of vascular dementia. What’s more, the researchers found people need to be more proactive about a healthy lifestyle earlier in life.

“What has become really apparent in our investigation is that advice for people to reduce their risk of brain problems, including their risk of getting dementia, is most commonly given in their 60s or later, when the ‘timely prevention’ horse has already bolted,” Professor Cherbuin, the lead author of the ANU study, said. “Many people who have dementia and other signs of cognitive dysfunction, including shrinking brains, have increased their risk throughout life by eating too much bad food and not exercising enough.”

How to avoid “junk” brain

The easiest way to prevent brain decline from a poor diet is to transition to eating more fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seafood, low-fat proteins like chicken and low-fat dairy products. This means also cutting out added salt and sugar, which appears in most processed foods like soda, pastries, ice cream, and more. Cooking at home will also decrease your risk of added sugars and salts since they are abounding even in meals offered at sit down restaurants. If this sounds simple, that’s because it is. Establishing a healthy diet isn’t rocket science. However, this transition could mean the world for brain health as we get older.

“One of the best chances people have of avoiding preventable brain problems down the track is to eat well and exercise from a young age,” Professor Cherbuin said. “The message is simple, but bringing about positive change will be a big challenge. Individuals, parents, medical professionals, and governments all have an important role to play.”

“As a society, we need to stop asking, ‘do you want fries with that?’, and the mindset that comes with it,” Professor Cherbuin continued. “If we don’t, then expect to see more overweight and obese people suffering from serious diseases.”

Everything we ingest affects our bodies. Choose wisely.