Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, has contributed to a new, international study that has found consuming less carbs can potentially put type 2 diabetes into remission.
Food processors and manufacturers have a huge say in how food is packaged and labelled, and how that information is presented has changed over time. How food was being produced 60 years ago, differs from 40 years ago, which in turn, differs from today. As we head into the middle part of the 21st century, there are many issues that surround the industry, sustainability and extending shelf life being two, as well as the influx of plant-based proteins that are starting to hit the shelves in supermarkets. Also, what role does technology play in the way we consume foods, and for that matter labelling, too.
From a purely consumption point of view, what goes into our food is also becoming more relevant. Not that long ago, food labels on packaging and tins were rudimentary – a rundown of basic ingredients. Today, there are minute breakdowns that include the amount of sugar, sodium, fats (trans, polyunsaturated etc), energy counts – a mass of information that can help us make an informed decision about what we put in our bodies. However, there is one thing that can’t be labelled – can’t be measured before consumption – how will your glucose spike?
According to the World Health Organisation, in 1980, 108 million people in the world were suffering from Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. By 2014, it was at 422 million, and by 2045 it is expected to be 700 million.
Is sugar good for you?
There has been a myth that if you eat a lot of sugar-based foods, it will increase your chances of getting diabetes. However, sugar itself is not a risk factor, but putting on weight by eating too many sugar-based foods can be one indicator for getting diabetes in addition to a whole array of other diseases. Thus, the packaging on food labels gives as much information as possible so people can make an informed choice and hopefully help consumers mitigate conditions that might affect them getting the disease.”
Once you have diabetes, it brings on another raft of issues, the least being checking blood sugar levels on a daily basis by the intrusive finger “prick” method.
It is something that has been on Professor Sharath Sriram and Peter Vranes’ minds for some time. Sriram, a professor of Functional Materials and Microsystems at RMIT University, and Vranes, a chemical engineer by trade and CEO of wearable devices company Nutromics, knew that there had to be an easier way for diabetics to help control the condition.
Detecting the right levels – the patch
Along with Romar Engineering, the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (IMCRC), and Griffith University, both Sriram and Vranes are trying to create a device that will fit the brief of finding a simpler way to not only measure glucose, but discover which foods spiked an individual’s blood-sugar levels. They have come up with a wearable device – what they are calling the Smart Patch – that will hopefully help do away with the need for the prick test, allow people to streamline their diets, and in turn will give some food processors and manufacturers an insight into peoples’ dietary needs. Not only will the patch measure glucose, but the developers are hoping that it will be able to measure other biometrics once it comes to market. Why start with glucose?
“A few years ago, a company came up with a way of continuously measuring glucose in the blood,” Vranes said. “They developed the continuous glucose monitor (CGM) that you put on your arm or stomach, and it continuously monitors your glucose level. It was a massive innovation because there are about 420 million diabetics in the world and every single one of them hates pricking their fingers multiple times a day. If they don’t do it often enough their glucose intake can be poorly controlled, there can be complications. We are leveraging some of that work around glucose.”
Although the patch uses similar technologies it is how it is put together that makes it different – it is less intrusive, according to Sriram. Instead of using blood to measure glucose levels it uses interstitial fluid, which is just under the skin. And how does it stick to the skin and measure the fluid?
“It is a bit like Velcro and has micro needles on the surface, which have micro sensors embedded in them,” said Sriram. “Once you place it on the skin, it is pain-free but it penetrates skin enough to sample interstitial fluid. Unlike a blood test, which can be painful, this is a lot easier. You just put a sticker on your body and it measures real time biomarkers in your body.”
While the point of the device is to measure glucose spikes, the main reason it was first thought of was it would enable people to streamline their diets to their own needs because different foods spike glucose in different people in diverse ways, according to both Sriram and Vranes.
“We all eat multiple times a day and we have no idea what the food is doing to us in a biochemical way,” said Vranes. “The typical notion in the public is that a food is either non-healthy or healthy for us. For example, a meat pie is not healthy, a lettuce is. A lot of research in the past few years has come out and said, a food is not inherently unhealthy, instead some foods are inherently unhealthy for individuals. You and I can have the same meal, I get a big glucose spike after that meal, called a post prandial glucose spike and that’s really bad for me. If I keep on doing that, it is going to drive me to diabetes. You can have exactly the same meal and get no or little spike. You can eat that all the time and it is not going to drive you to diabetes.”
“Different forms of food have different glycaemic indexes. All of them give you the same amount of energy but it’s a case of how spread out that energy is,” said Sriram. “Though we are talking about different spikes, there is a bell-shaped curve – a glycaemic curve. It is a question with each individual; is that curve narrow and are you getting all your energy in one shot or is it spread out and happening over a longer period of time?”
The differentiating factor
What makes the patch different from current devices on the market? Quite a few things, according to Vranes.
“Our Smart Patch reads glucose, but importantly, interprets the data, compares the data to the meals consumed, and then advises whether the meal was good (green), poor (red) or in between (orange) for the individual,” he said. “This is all seamless for the user. If an individual was to try and attempt this with a CGM, they would have to do all the data analysis and interpretation themselves which is unlikely outside of a few biohackers. The technology has applications in other verticals as well.”
Vranes sees the patch as a solution by combining the information it gets with enough data on an individual so they can start eating and drinking to suit their body’s chemical make-up. What Vranes and Sriram want the patch to do is be predictive. In other words, to have enough data on an individual to know that if they want to eat a certain meal, they can, knowing if it is healthy for them. It will allow users to scan the back of a can and tell them which meals are good and what food items they should be avoiding.
“There are all these applications that once you get this data, you can help people and really facilitate them to have far healthier diets because they know what’s out there for them and what isn’t,” he said.
While some might baulk at wearing such a patch because it might highlight some of their favourite foods as a no-go in terms of consumption, Vranes looks at is as more of a cup half full situation.
“One of the interesting things about the research was that things that people would restrict themselves with, [they might not have to anymore] because it didn’t spike glucose like they expected,” he said. “They could start reintroducing things like ice-cream into their diet – in moderation.”
Then there is the biochemistry, physiological and biometrics of the body that have to be taken into consideration. How a person’s body reacts to eating an apple one day might change the next depending on the state of your body.
“It is important to remember that for each individual the results vary. If you are eating food under normal circumstances, the way your body generates glucose is very different from when, say, you have four days of lack of sleep,” said Sriram. “This is because your body’s biomarkers are out of sync. Your hormones are playing up. The affect the food has on you will be different from somebody else. It doesn’t matter if you wear the patch for one month and say, ‘This is my glucose profile, I know what I should eat’. If your lifestyle is changing, then the parameters are changing for you. It will personalise the diet for you.”
Microtechnology is being used in the device, not nanotechnology. The sensors on the end of the needles are at about the same thickness of a human hair. Sriram said that they deliberately did not go down to the nanoscale.
“We don’t need to go nanoscale to get the information,” he said. “There is always a trade off in the size of the object and the cost of manufacturing. The more nanoscale features you introduce, the more the cost goes up as do the manufacturing challenges. Our work with Nutromics is how do we make it manufacturable; how do you take smart electronics and keep the costs low; and how do we keep the manufacturing in Australia.”
Vranes said the technology is about two years away from being released to the public.
“At the moment we’ve done trials and testing with people and we will get their feedback, and what’s impactful for them,” he said. “When we get into the market, it is pretty well tested already. It should take only a couple of years to get all the kinks ironed out.”
Prevalence of various disorders such as obesity and diabetes has led to surge in demand for food products with low sugar content. In addition, growing need for weight management is projected to impact the global market growth of artificial sweeteners positively. Report states that the global market of artificial sweeteners is projected to reflect a CAGR of 4.7 per cent over the forecast period, 2017-2026.
Factors Fuelling Growth of the Global Market
Growth of the global artificial sweeteners market are mainly bound by various macro-economic and micro-economic factors. As prevalence of disorders such as obesity and diabetes continue to remain on the rise, food and beverage manufacturers are increasingly focusing on offering food products with low sugar content. In addition, changing consumption and spending patterns of the customers is projected to reflect positively towards demand for the artificial sweeteners globally. As customers are becoming more aware about the health benefitting food products, the leading food and beverage companies are concentrating on producing fat-free and diabetic friendly food products to expand their customer base.
Sales of artificial sweeteners is projected to remain concentrated in the beverage industry. In order to cater to the increasing demand for fat-free and sugar-free products, the major food and beverage companies are focusing on offering beverage products that have low sugar content such as diet coke. As customers are increasingly following diet plans for weight management, preference for consumption of beverage products with low or no sugar-content is projected to remain high. Preference for healthy, fat-free and sugar-free food products is projected to rev up demand for artificial sweeteners in the global market during the forecast period.
However, various factors are projected to pose significant challenges for growth of the global market growth of artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners are projected to record significant demand during production of aerated drinks such as soft drinks. As customers are becoming more health conscious, preference for healthy beverages such as natural fruit juices are projected to increase. Drop in sales for soft drinks in North America and Europe attributed to changing consumer patterns is projected to inhibit the global market growth of artificial sweeteners positively. Moreover, various artificial sweetener products such as Aspartame, Saccharin and Sucralose have carcinogenic properties, which can affect the customer’s health adversely. Bound to these factors, artificial sweeteners are projected to witness decline in demand over the forecast period.
Sales to Remain High in Food and Beverage Industry
As the need for sweet and low calorie food product is projected to remain high, demand for artificial sweeteners such as aspartame is likely to increase among the food manufacturers. In terms of revenue, the aspartame product type segment is projected to witness the highest growth, recording more than $9,260 Mn by 2026-end. On the other hand, the sucralose product type segment is projected to reflect a healthy CAGR over the forecast period. By end users, the food and beverage segment is projected to register significant revenue growth, representing for a value of over $12,822 Mn by 2017-end. In contrary, the pharmaceuticals end users segment is projected to reflect the fastest growth in the global market of artificial sweeteners throughout 2026.
By 2026-end, the beverage application segment is projected to significant growth in terms of revenue, recording more than $5,700 Mn. On the other hand, the bakery goods application segment is projected to witness a healthy CAGR over the forecast period.
An estimated 1.7 million Australians have diabetes and 280 Australians develop diabetes every day, according to Diabetes Australia. It is the fastest growing chronic condition in Australia, with type 1 diabetes accounting for 10 per cent, type 2 diabetes accounting for 85 per cent, and gestational diabetes in pregnancy adding to the increasing number.
Many people with diabetes have to watch what they eat, and measure glucose levels and ketone levels daily. But despite efforts to fight the condition, every six seconds a person dies from diabetes worldwide, a 2015 International Diabetes Federation (IDF) study indicates.
On a global scale, an estimated 415 million adults had diabetes in 2015, the IDF study suggests. That’s one in 11 adults, with almost half remaining undiagnosed. By 2040, IDF estimates that one adult in 10 will have diabetes. Complications associated with this condition include blindness, amputation and death.
With the number of people with diabetes on the rise, University of Sydney professor, Xiaoke Yi, hopes a new device will alleviate some of the strain on millions of peoples’ lives. Yi and a team at Sydney University are developing a hand-held breath testing device that detects deadly ketones known as ketoacidosis. They expect the device will be available to people with diabetes around the world within two years.
Diabetes Australia explains that ketoacidosis is a serious condition associated with illness or very high blood glucose levels. Most cases of ketoacidosis occur in people with type 1 diabetes. It develops gradually over hours or days and it is a sign of insufficient insulin. Without enough insulin, the body’s cells cannot use glucose for energy. To make up for this, the body begins to burn fat for energy instead. This leads to accumulation of dangerous chemical substances in the blood called ketones, which also appear in the urine, Diabetes Australia reports.
The device measures ketones, which at elevated levels can be fatal. Yi hopes the device will help all people with diabetes that currently need to undertake finger prick blood tests, which can be a painful daily chore, according to her.
“A team member got pregnancy-induced diabetes. She said the constant testing was painful. When I talked to other people with diabetes about it the common saying was, ‘we are used to it’,” she said. There should be a better option than accepting the discomfort, said Yi. “We are trying to find a non-invasive way to do it, which is through the human breath.”
The device would make the daily task of managing diabetes easier and it could help prevent deaths, she said. Yi’s grandmother died from diabetes and she’s heard cases from doctors of children with diabetes who had undetected ketoacidosis.
The device could also be used for therapies using ketogenic diets which could help people dealing with ADHD, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, some cancers, such as brain cancer, and other diseases, said Yi.
“When we’re 90 years old, sitting on rocking chairs with our grandchildren on our laps, we want to be able to say, ‘I am proud that I have helped to make the world a better place for us all to live in’.”
An idea born in Sydney
The idea started from an undergraduate thesis project, in 2015. “At the beginning, we wanted to monitor air pollution, but when we started we thought this could help on the medical side,” said Yi.
From there, the collaboration between the engineering department and the medical department started. It’s led by Yi, professor Stephen Twigg, from the Sydney Medical School, and associate professor Paul Williams, from the University of Sydney and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.
The device started as a prototype that was one-square-metre large and it continues to transform into something more usable. “We shrank it to half the size, then we shrank it to the size of two lunch boxes, and then we created a hand-held one,” said Yi. They have tested it as an airbag, but the goal is to have a smaller, more environmentally-friendly product that people can carry in a handbag or pocket. It may even be created into an attachment, which will relay information to a phone or watch, said Yi.
Yi also mentioned that affordability, convenience, mobility and sustainability are key factors in finalising the product. Some users need to measure their ketone levels three times a day, so it needs to be easy to carry, she said. “If we do prepare it commercially and make it low cost, then everybody can afford it.” Once the prototype is finished, it will be tested on diabetes patients at two hospitals in Sydney. This is expected to happen at the end of 2018 or early next year.
A multi-purpose tool
Yi explains that when the liver breaks down the fat it generates ketones. There are two parts to it – ketosis, which is good for the body, and ketoacidosis, which causes problems. “We target both, but the aim is to help the diabetes patients to prevent ketoacidosis because that can be life threatening.” People who want to lose weight, can benefit from a ketogenic diet, she said. “They can push their ketone level higher so they break down more fat.” It was recently discovered that a ketogenic diet can also help treat brain cancer, said Yi.
Yi aims to create technologies for other biomarker measurements such as measuring glucose levels. “We would like to develop a non-invasive sensing technique for glucose monitoring in people with diabetes that is highly accurate, informs in real-time, low-cost, pain-free and risk-free. This will represent a major breakthrough in the development of non-invasive blood glucose measurement devices that can provide stable and reliable results, conveniently and economically,” she said.
Diabetes Australia spokesperson Renza Scibilia said if there was a less invasive way to test glucose and ketone levels, it would be a welcome change by many people with diabetes. While some people use urine analysis, which can be inaccurate, most measurements are taken with by pricking a finger to draw blood.
Scibilia, who lives with type 1 diabetes, checks her glucose every day. “It’s not pleasant to have to pierce your skin. It’s not my favourite task. If there’s something that’s far simpler it’s always going to be welcomed by people with diabetes.”
Often people need to administer insulin injections and do finger pick checks in public. While Diabetes Australia encourages people to do so freely in public, some people felt uncomfortable doing it or worried that they made others feel uncomfortable, said Scibilia.
“Having something that’s not a needle might make them feel more comfortable. Diabetes Australia is always really supportive of evidence-based technology that is going to make it easier for people with diabetes day-to-day,” said Scibilia.
Opportunity for job growth
Beyond health benefits, Yi is proud that she can contribute to a project that will create jobs in Australia. The technology is licensed by a Hong-Kong based company, Ausmed Global, which will be starting a subsidiary in Sydney in 2019. The prospect that people, such as university graduates, will get jobs out of this, tops it off, said Yi. “We have a team of young, intelligent students and research assistants. They are not afraid to jump out of their comfort zones.” With projects as challenging as this, they need to believe in themselves, she said. One of the students is Mitchell Austin, who is in the first year of his PhD, sponsored by Ausmed Global. Austin said it would help so many people, which made it a great project to be a part of. “Diabetes is getting worse as more people are getting it, so, the need for help is greater. I think of the number of individuals we will help with this project,” said Austin.
Yi was the winner of the Excellence in Engineering award at the Women in Industry Awards 2018, held in Sydney in June.
The CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet has launched a new initiative, ‘Slimtember’, a four-week campaign encouraging Australians to start eating better and losing weight, while helping to raise money for a great cause.
A portion of the funds raised through Slimtember will be donated to JDRF Australia (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) to help treat and cure Type 1 diabetes in children. The campaign commences on 5 September and registration opens today.
According to CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet Online, September is an ideal time to shed any excess weight accumulated over winter and the opportunity to contribute to a worthy charity might help to double the motivation to act now. It is hoped that everyone who wants to improve their health and lose weight – including work colleagues, families, friends and individuals, will get on board with the campaign.
“We believe Slimtember will provide extra motivation for Australians to eat healthier and lose weight and also raise funds for a worthy cause,” said Professor Manny Noakes, CSIRO Research Director for Nutrition and Health and the co-author of the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet.
According to JDRF Australia CEO, Mike Wilson, Type 1 diabetes currently has no cure and represents 95 percent of all diabetes cases amongst children.
“Both children and adults with T1D need to stay fit and healthy like everyone else. While Slimtember can’t stop T1D, it can help fund vital medical research. It is the support of the public through initiatives such as Slimtember that can make a real difference,” said Wilson.
To join the Slimtember campaign, participants need to register at www.slimtember.org. Registration costs $69 with $10 of the signup fee donated to JDRF Australia.
To help them succeed in the four week challenge, registered participants will be sent a ‘Slimtember’ kit.
Offering smaller portions is one way of encouraging people to eat less. But while a single, smaller portion does lead to less consumption, having multiple smaller portions on offer can encourage some people – notably the diet-conscious – to eat more.
Based on evidence that portion sizes have been growing since the 1970s, some researchers have speculated that this is the cause for obesity’s increasing prevalence. But correlation doesn’t equal causation. Since the 1970s, our lifestyles have also become very much more sedentary. The rise in obesity is probably a function of what we eat as well as how active we are.
Shrinking portion sizes
Nonetheless, controlling portion sizes can at least help. We have compelling evidence that smaller portions lead people to consume less, for instance. Encouragingly, a number of longer-term studies show that smaller portions have led people to lose weight.
The power of smaller portions has encouraged at least some public health agencies to actively promote related ideas, such as 100-calorie snacks. And a willingness by customers to choose smaller portions has encouraged food manufacturers to respond by providing them.
Coca-Cola, for instance added a 250-millilitre can to its range last year and already has 200mL mini-can multipacks. But smaller portions and multipacks are distinct packaging formats with subtle but important effects.
A number of other food companies have introduced large packs partitioned into multiple, smaller “snack-size” packs. The presumption is that partitioning a larger portion into smaller portions will encourage people to eat less in line with the portion-size effect.
But research shows providing multiple smaller packs leads to a paradoxical effect among the diet-conscious. They tend to eat more when offered multiple smaller packs.
In 2008, two independent research teams showed that when participants in lab studies were provided with multiple packs of M&Ms or cookies or chips, people who identified as diet-conscious tended to eat more than people presented with the same quantity in one single, unpartitioned pack.
But the results from the three studies (two from one team, one from the other) were equivocal. While partitioning reduced consumption among non-diet-conscious people across all three studies, the difference was statistically significant in just one. Partitioning also increased consumption among the diet-conscious in all three studies, but again the effect was significant in just one.
Mind what you eat
We conducted additional research replicating key elements of the previous three studies. We then combined our study with the previous published studies in a meta-analysis. This confirmed the operation of two opposing effects: partitioning reduces consumption among the non-diet-conscious, but increases consumption among the diet-conscious.
But does the effect work beyond the artificial setting of the laboratory? One striking feature of all the studies showing this contradictory partitioning effect was that participants were blind to the fact that their food consumption was being monitored. They were actively engaged in another study (completing a questionnaire, or evaluating advertisements), with the snacks being offered as an incidental treat.
To examine the importance of participant awareness, we did another study examining an additional sample of diet-conscious participants who were explicitly told they would have to provide an evaluation of the snacks afterwards. They no longer ate more.
It appears that the partitioning effect is sensitive to whether people are aware that their consumption is being monitored. This finding is consistent with a recent meta-analysis showing consumption is generally reduced when people are aware they’re participating in a food study.
Smaller portions do appear to help reduce consumption, but people who are diet-conscious, those who are watchful of their weight and what they eat, ought to be careful about multipacks containing multiple smaller portions. This packaging format seems to encourage them to eat more.
The effect of multipacks fits with other research showing the way food is presented can unconsciously affect consumption. If you serve the same amount of food on a small plate, for instance, it may look bigger and lead people to eat less. And tall, thin glasses look bigger than small, squat ones with an equivalent volume; they encourage people to serve and drink less.
The best diet is one you don’t know you’re on.
If you are diet-conscious and intending to buy snacks, you’re better off buying large, unpartitioned packages, or a single small pack. But the best option would be not to buy the snacks at all.
Fast food giant McDonald’s has been under a cloud in recent years as its US customers turn to alternatives. In this “Fast food reinvented” series we explore what the sector is doing to keep customers hooked and sales rising.
While excess weight and obesity is a growing global concern, there has been more and more advertising and promotional effort encouraging the consumption of unhealthy food.
In many cases this marketing is targeted at children, and takes place online. In our recent study we investigated the impact of online marketing communications on children and their intention to consume unhealthy food. We found fast food ads on social networking sites can manipulate young audiences – their purchasing likelihood, their views of fast food and their eating habits.
The qualitative study included a sample of 40 Australian children who use social networking sites. Half (21) of the children were male and the average age was 14 (the youngest being 12 and the oldest 16). Their parents were also present during the interview, however they agreed not to intervene during the conversation.
A growing problem
The prevalence of excess weight and obesity among Australians has been growing for the past 30 years. Between 2011 and 2012, around 60% of Australian adults were classified as overweight, and more than 25% of these fell into the obese category. In 2013, more than 12 million, or three in five Australian adults, were overweight or obese. On top of that, one in four Australian children were overweight or obese. Excess weight and obesity is only beaten by smoking and high blood pressure as a contributor to a burden of diseases.
Despite this, the food industry is succeeding in using marketing communications to change attitudes, perceptions and perceived norms associated with unhealthy food.
Consumers are lured by surprisingly cheap deals, which are especially attractive to teenagers and young adults with low income. But sales promotions such as discounts and coupons often offer only short-term benefits to consumers and are usually not effective among middle-age adults.
However, if a promotion is offered for a long period of time (i.e. more than three months), it can actually influence customer habits, encouraging repeat purchases – for example, the $1 frozen Coke.
Similarly, sales promotions can make other brands be perceived as less attractive by customers after a period of time. For instance, the $1 frozen Coke campaigns by McDonald’s and Hungry Jack’s affect the perception of frozen Coke in terms of monetary value. Many consumers become less willing to buy a frozen Coke that is more expensive than $1. The same can be said of $2 burgers or $5 pizzas.
The role of social networks
More than half (16 out of 30) of the respondents admitted they tended to change their eating habits after repeatedly being exposed to advertisements on social networking sites.
“Yes, many people say that it is not good to eat fast food. I used to think so but not anymore. Look at their ads, they are colourful, many options and cheap.”
“I just cannot resist it… I had been looking at the ads day after day and I decided that I needed to try these”.
Interestingly, fast food was associated with socialisation and fun among young consumers.
“The ads make me feel like this is where we belong to. This is our lifestyle…where we hang out and can be ourselves.”
“This is about our culture, young, active and free. We are kids but also not kids. We are different.”
Peer pressure is heavily related to eating habits, especially during puberty when there is usually a shift from home influence to group motivation. Teenagers and young adults in particular tend to choose a particular type of food under peer pressure.
More than 70% of teenagers will choose a food according to the preference of their friends. This means marketing communications promoting fast food consumption can create a snowball effect within this group of customers. For example, Jack, Sara and Park go out together. If Jack and Sara order Big Burgers with extra cheese, the likelihood that Park will order another Big Burger with extra cheese is approximately 75%. In contrast, only 2.7% of people aged over 40 choose fast food because of their peers.
It’s clear marketing efforts by fast food chains can promote unhealthy eating habits. Also, peer influence plays an important part in forming eating habits. This means the intervention of government and health organisations should concentrate on increasing customers’ attention to health issues, self-efficacy and perceived norms, and at the same time, lessening the influence of marketing efforts aimed at motivating unhealthy eating habits.
New research has shown for the first time that the part of the brain used for learning, memory and mental health is smaller in people with unhealthy diets.
The results of the study by researchers at Deakin University and the Australian National University (ANU) suggest that older Australians with unhealthy diets have smaller hippocampi – the hippocampus is a part of the brain believed to be integral to learning, memory and mental health. It has also shown that older people with healthier diets have larger hippocampi.
Associate Professor Felice Jacka, lead author of the study and researcher with Deakin University’s IMPACT Strategic Research Centre in Geelong, said that as the negative impact of unhealthy foods on the waistline of the population grows, so does the evidence suggesting that our brain health is also affected.
“It is becoming even clearer that diet is critically important to mental as well as physical health throughout life,” Associate Professor Jacka said.
“We’ve known for some time that components of diet, both healthy and unhealthy, have a rapid impact on aspects of the brain that affect hippocampal size and function, but up until now these studies have only been done in rats and mice. This is the first study to show that this also appears to be the case for humans.”
The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to measure the size of hippocampi (there are two in the brain – left and right) in Australian adults aged 60-64 years and participating in the PATH study – a large longitudinal study of ageing conducted at the ANU. They also measured the participants’ regular diets and took into account a range of other factors that could affect the hippocampus.
The results of the study, now published in the international journal BMC Medicine, suggest that older adults who eat more unhealthy foods, such as sweet drinks, salty snacks and processed meats, have smaller left hippocampi. It also shows that older adults who eat more nutrient-rich foods, such as vegetables, fruits and fish, have larger left hippocampi. These relationships existed over and above other factors that may explain these associations, such as gender, levels of physical activity, smoking, education or depression itself.
These findings have relevance for both dementia and mental health, Associate Professor Jacka said.
“Mental disorders account for the leading cause of disability worldwide, while rates of dementia are increasing as the population ages,” she said.
“Recent research has established that diet and nutrition are related to the risk for depression, anxiety and dementia, however, until now it was not clear how diet might exert an influence on mental health and cognition.
“This latest study sheds light on at least one of the pathways by which eating an unhealthy diet may influence the risk for dementia, cognitive decline and mental disorders such as depression and anxiety in older people.
“However, it also points to the importance of diet for brain health in other age groups. As the hippocampus is critical to learning and memory throughout life, as well as being a key part of the brain involved in mental health, this study underscores the importance of good nutrition for children, adolescents and adults of all ages.”