Probably the best known example on how the brain and mental health are linked to nutrition and our gut, and the one that we can all identify ourselves with, is stress. We all know it: studying 24/7 for an important exam, pressure in the job or even a house full of work. We have no time to think and – no – we definitely don’t have time to cook. But at the same time we are constantly hungry, craving for a snack. The fastest solution? The next best, nicest looking, edible piece of food we can find.

But why do we change our dietary habits during stress and what happens in our body? What are the consequences and what can we do to avoid this impulsive eating behavior?

A study from Yau and Potenza in 2013 states that about 20% of the population do not change their eating behavior during stress (good for them), while about 40% decrease and another 40% increase their caloric intake. But besides simply increasing the amount of food we consume, we also tend to choose more pleasurable and palatable food when we’re stressed. This usually leads to the consumption of unhealthy and calorie-dense foods, which unfortunately results in gaining weight (at least for most of us).

Stress can have many different causes, ranging from physical stressors like severe illnesses to emotional stressors such as the loss of a loved one. So far, it is known that acute and severe stressors tend to suppress appetite, which results from our evolutionary conserved ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction (Adams und Epel, 2007). On the other hand, lighter – but therefore often chronic – stressors (occurring on a daily basis) seem to increase our appetite, especially towards energy-dense foods. These two roughly categorized types of stress activate two different systems in our body, causing different stress responses:

  • Acute stressors activate the sympathetic adrenal medullary system
  • Chronic stressors activate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal [HPA] axis (Torres & Nowson, 2007)

The sympathetic adrenal medullary system induces the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline. These are the ones increasing our heart rate right before we have to give a talk in front of a huge audience, while they, at the same time, reduce our drive to eat or even make us want to throw up… On the opposite side, the HPA-axis, activated by daily stressors, leads to the release of cortisol. And, cortisol can have some unwanted effects.

This hormone is known to stimulate our appetite by affecting our reward system, in a very similar way as alcohol and drugs affect this system. In the case of chronic stress, chocolate or chips can have the same effects as drugs: they make us feel better for a short amount of time. This “positive” feeling, that might reduce our stress level for a few moments, reinforces the consumption of sweets later on, thereby resulting in some kind of dependence. But as in all cases of addictions, this repeated stimulation of the reward system can lead to an adaptation, eventually increasing this compulsive behavior.

Knowing now that in some strange ways it is our body that makes us crave burgers and pizza in times of stress, what can we do to avoid gaining weight?

Well, the first thing is: listen to your body and try to understand what is going on. Ask yourself why you are stressed and if there is anything you can do to reduce it, like taking more breaks during the day. If this is not possible, try to find other ways to compensate: take walks, do more exercise, find something else that makes you feel better at the end of the day, besides that tasty chocolate donut and popcorn. Before snacking, hesitate and ask yourself if you are really hungry or just eating because you feel like it. And if you absolutely can’t resist, try to substitute the chocolate bar with healthier snacks, like dried fruits or nuts.

But finally, keeping all that in mind, don’t forget that food is not always your enemy and there is no problem with eating what you desire as long as it is in moderation.

REFERENCES:
Yau, Yvonne H. C.; Potenza, Marc N. (2013). Stress and Eating Behaviors. Minerva Endocrinol, 38(3): 255–267. Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24126546

Adam, Tanja C.; Epel, Elissa S. (2007). Stress, eating and the reward system. Physiology & Behavior 91, 449–458. DOI: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2007.04.011

Torres, Susan J.; Nowson, Caryl A. (2007). Relationship between stress, eating behavior, and obesity. Nutrition Volume 23, Issues 11–12, Pages 887-894. DOI: 10.1016/j.nut.2007.08.008

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The food choices we make, how much we exercise and the amount of body fat we have affects our health already at a young age. Although seemingly healthy, our metabolism might tell a different story. This can already be seen at a young age.

The Estonian Children Personality Behaviour and Health Study (ECPBHS) started 20 years ago in 1998 and has since measured the participants’ body composition and assessed their metabolic abnormalities, such as insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, at ages 15, 18, 25 and 33 years.

Insulin resistance is a state in which the body does not respond to normal levels of insulin efficiently, eventually causing a rise in blood sugar levels. It has been proposed that insulin resistance has a role in the development of several metabolic abnormalities what we know as metabolic syndrome1. These metabolic abnormalities include a large waistline (abdominal obesity), high levels of certain types of fat in the blood called triglycerides, a low level of HDL cholesterol, high blood pressure or usage of blood pressure medication and elevated fasting blood sugar levels or type 2 diabetes diagnosis2.

We have found that already at age 25, individuals who consumed more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day and had more than 4 hours of screen time were at higher risk of components of metabolic syndrome3. Insulin resistance was associated with male gender3,4, overweight and obesity, low physical activity levels and the consumption of lipids above the recommended daily energy intake*4. Individuals who consumed carbohydrates below the recommended daily energy intake*, were less likely to be insulin resistant. Already at age 25, insulin resistant individuals had higher serum cholesterol, lower HDL cholesterol, and higher triglyceride levels, fasting blood sugar and insulin levels. People who were overweight also had 4 times higher odds of insulin resistance and being obese increased the odds 12 times if compared to normal weight individuals4. From 15 to 25 years the occurrence of components of metabolic syndrome increased rapidly. At age 15 years 18% of participants had one or more metabolic abnormality and by age 25 years the number had doubled, whereas 5% already had metabolic syndrome.3 Individuals who were insulin resistant were more likely to have metabolic syndrome.4

Insulin resistance and the metabolic syndrome are risk factors for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease later in life1. As we observed, one fifth of the adolescents already have at least one metabolic abnormality and the number of components of metabolic syndrome increases from adolescence to young adulthood. That is why it is important that healthy lifestyle habits should be introduced and encouraged already in early childhood. Although young people may seem to be healthy, the first signs of developing metabolic abnormalities may already be there.

*According to the Estonian nutrition and physical activity recommendations (2015), the recommended consumption of macronutrients from daily energy intake (E%) is as following: proteins 10–20%, lipids 25–35%, carbohydrates 50–60%5.

Written by:
Urmeli Joost, MSc is a PhD student at the Institute of Family Medicine and Public Health, University of Tartu, Estonia. Her main focus of research is the genetic, environmental and behavioural factors in obesity, dyslipidemia and glucose metabolism.

Inga Villa, MD, PhD is a Lecturer in Health Promotion at the Institute of Family Medicine and Public Health, University of Tartu, Estonia. Her main focus of research is nutrition, physical activity and sociocultural factors on health status and body composition.

REFERENCES
1. Xu, H., Li, X., Adams, H., Kubena, K. & Guo, S. Etiology of Metabolic Syndrome and Dietary Intervention. Int J Mol Sci 20, (2018).

2. Alberti, K. G. M. M. et al. Harmonizing the metabolic syndrome: a joint interim statement of the International Diabetes Federation Task Force on Epidemiology and Prevention; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; American Heart Association; World Heart Federation; International Atherosclerosis Society; and International Association for the Study of Obesity. Circulation 120, 1640–1645 (2009).

3. Taimur, T. Metaboolse sündroomi komponentide levimus ja seosed toitumisega noorukieast täiskasvanueani. Tartu: Tartu Ülikooli peremeditsiini ja rahvatervishoiu instituut; 2018.

4. Joost U. Insuliinresistentsuse seosed elustiiliharjumustega noortel täiskasvanutel Eestis [masters thesis]. Tartu: Tartu Ülikooli tervishoiu instituut; 2015.

5. Pitsi, et al. Eesti toitumis- ja liikumissoovitused 2015. Tervise Arengu Instituut. Tallinn, 2017.

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Every child knows: sugar is bad for the teeth. Nutrition with a high amount of sugar does not only put you at a risk of dental cavities but also affects your physical and mental health, mood and memory.

Sick? Current researches associate sugar consumption with overweight and obesity, which increases the risk of various subsequent illnesses: diabetes type 2, cardiovascular diseases (risk for stroke and heart attack), dementia and cancer. (1)

Sad? In a study on patients with diabetes type 2 the level of blood sugar was manipulated. When the blood glucose was elevated (> 16,5 mmol/l) participants had a reduced energetic arousal and felt more sadness and anxiety (2).

Stupid? In a study on healthy adults memory skills and blood sugar levels were measured. Participants with higher blood sugar levels showed worse memory performance than adults with lower glucose levels. This difference was mediated by structural changes in the brain (3). Another study found that high blood sugar levels within the normal range (> 6.1 mmol) were associated with 6-10% loss in brain volume. The loss effected hippocampus and amygdala -areas that are important for learning, memory and cognitive skills (4).

The WHO recommends the intake of less than 10% or even better less than 5% free sugars of the daily total energy intake. For an adult that means less than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day (5). The problem is: there is a high amount of sugar in products where we don’t expect it.

So here are some tips to avoid sugar:
1. Pay attention to the ingredients list: There are many names to cover the total amount of contained sugar in products. Everything ending with “-ose” or “syrup” is sugar. The position on the list indicates the relative amount of a compound, so producers often mix different sugars in order to “hide” them at the end of the ingredients list. In “light” products the missing fat is often replaced by sugar. Better base your nutrition on staple foods like whole-grain food, fruits and vegetables to avoid hunger pangs as a response to changes in blood sugar level.

2. Avoid ready-made products such as pizza, sauces, soups or ketchup. You might be surprised how much sugar they contain! Also, many cereals and yoghurts contain high amounts of sugar. Prepare it yourself: Use unsweetened yoghurt and add your favourite fruits.
3. Step by step: Reduce your sugar intake slowly to be successful in the long term. For example, day by day put a bit less sugar into your coffee to get used to it.
4. Save on baking sugar: Just use less than stated in the recipe – it tastes just as good.
5. Replace sugary drinks with water or unsweetened teas. Add lemon, mint or pieces of fruit to your water.
6. Make it something special: If you don´t buy sweets you will be less tempted by them. It may be a good rule to eat cake and cookies only on special days or with friends.
7. Size does count: A small treat, when eaten attentive, will satisfy you better than the whole chocolate bar you consume while being absorbed by reading the newspaper, watching a movie, or driving your car.
8. Avoid sugar substitutes: Honey, agave syrup and fruit extract, etc have the same effects as refined sugars. It’s healthier to get used to less sweetness.
9. Experiment with spices: Instead of sugar, spices such as cinnamon, vanilla or cardamom can enhance flavor.
10. Eat fruits: Satisfy your sweet tooth with fruits instead of sugar.
Get to know the natural taste of your food 😊

Shortened version:
1. Pay attention to the ingredients list: Everything ending with “-ose” or “syrup” is sugar. In “light” products the missing fat is often replaced by sugar.
2. Avoid ready-made products such as pizza, sauces, soups or ketchup. Also, some cereals and yoghurts contain a relatively high amount of sugar.
3. Save on baking sugar: just use less than stated in the recipe – it tastes just as good.
4. Replace sugary drinks with water or unsweetened teas. Add lemon, mint or fruits to your water.
5. Avoid sugar substitutes: Honey, agave syrup and fruit extract, etc have the same effects as refined sugars. It’s healthier to get used to less sugar.
Get to know the natural taste of your food 😊

REFERENCES:
(1) Stanhope K. L. (2016). Sugar consumption, metabolic disease and obesity: The state of the controversy. Crit Rev Clin Lab Sci, 53(1): 52-67. doi: 10.3109/10408363.2015.1084990.

(2) Sommerfield, A. J., Deary I. J. & Frier, B. M. (2004). Acute Hyperglycemia Alters Mood State and Impairs Cognitive Performance in People With Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes Care, 27: 2335–2340.
doi: 10.2337/diacare.27.10.2335.

(3) Kerti, L., Witte, A. V., Winkler, A., Grittner, U., Rujescu, D. & Flöel, A. (2013). Higher glucose levels associated with lower memory and reduced hippocampal microstructure. Neurology, 81 (20), 1746- 1752.
doi: 10.1212/01.wnl.0000435561.00234.ee.

(4) Cherbuin, N., Sachdev, P. &Anstey, K. J. (2912). Higher normal fasting plasma glucose is associated with hippocampal atrophy: The PATH Study. Neurology, 79 (10): 1019- 1026.
doi: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e31826846de.

(5) WHO Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data (2015). Guideline: Sugar intake for adults and children. World Health Organization.
Retrieved from: http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/149782/9789241549028_eng.pdf;jsessionid=3F96BB43E2B34C12341B1EB60F035587?sequence=1.

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Recent research (1,2) on children and adolescents has reported that elevated levels of ADHD symptoms are positively associated with unhealthy dietary habits, including a higher consumption of refined sugars, processed food, soft drink, instant noodles, and a lower intake of vegetables and fruits. However, the link between low-quality diets and risk of ADHD in adults is still not well established, which would be further explored in the ongoing Eat2beNICE research project.

What is the underlying mechanism for an association between ADHD and unhealthy dietary habits? There is still no clear answer. Nemours’ potential biological pathways, by which dietary intake could have an impact on mental health, has been proposed in the literature (2). For example, iron and zinc are cofactors for dopamine and norepinephrine production (essential factors in the etiology of ADHD), so unbalanced diet with lower levels of iron and zinc may further contribute to the development of ADHD. However, we cannot overlook the possibility of a bi-directional relationship between diet quality and ADHD, especially when the interest in the concept of “food addiction” has received increased attention.

Food addiction refers to being addicted to certain foods (e.g. highly processed foods, highly palatable foods, sweet and junk foods) in a similar way as drug addicts are addicted to drugs. Animal models (3) have suggested that highly processed foods may possess addictive properties. Rats given high-sugar or high-fat foods display symptoms of binge eating, such as consuming increased quantities of food in short time periods, and seeking out highly processed foods despite negative consequences (e.g. electric foot shocks). One human study (4) found that individuals with high levels of ADHD-like traits (e.g. high levels of impulsively, disorganised, attention problems) were more likely to suffer from problematic eating behaviour with overconsumption of specific highly palatable foods in an addiction-like manner. Therefore, food addiction may, just as substance abuse, be over-represented among individuals with ADHD.

Thus, it seems there could be a vicious cycle between unhealthy dietary habits and ADHD: ADHD may lead to a worse choice of diet, lowering the health quality, which could eventually exacerbate ADHD symptoms. We will further test the bidirectional diet-ADHD associations in the ongoing Eat2beNice project.

This was co-authored by Henrik Larsson, professor in the School of Medical Science, Örebro University and Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Karolinska Institute, Sweden.

AUTHORS:
Lin Li, MSc, PhD student in the School of Medical Science, Örebro University, Sweden.
Henrik Larsson, PhD, professor in the School of Medical Science, Örebro University and Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Karolinska Institute, Sweden.

REFERENCES:
1. Kim KM, Lim MH, Kwon HJ, Yoo SJ, Kim EJ, Kim JW, et al. Associations between attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms and dietary habits in elementary school children. Appetite. 2018;127:274-9.

2. Rios-Hernandez A, Alda JA, Farran-Codina A, Ferreira-Garcia E, Izquierdo-Pulido M. The Mediterranean Diet and ADHD in Children and Adolescents. Pediatrics. 2017;139(2).

3. Gearhardt AN, White MA, Potenza MN. Binge Eating Disorder and Food Addiction. Curr Drug Abuse Rev. 2011;4(3):201-7.

4. Ptacek R, Stefano GB, Weissenberger S, Akotia D, Raboch J, Papezova H, et al. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and disordered eating behaviors: links, risks, and challenges faced. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2016;12:571-9.

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We know that high-energy food (rich in refined sugars and fats) is addictive and can lead to an eating addiction and obesity. Addiction is a very severe disorder with chronic and relapsing components. People who suffer from addiction show compulsivity, persistence to seek the reward (food), and high motivation to overconsume in some cases.

Food Addictions in People and MiceTo study eating addiction, we have developed a mouse model that shows persistence to eat, high motivation for palatable food and resistance to punishment in obtaining the food. We have tested these three characteristics in several genetically identical animals and selected two extreme groups: Mice that are vulnerable to eating addiction and mice that are resilient to it.

Mice have more than 25,000 genes in their genome, and they can be turned on or turned off (‘expressed’ or ‘not expressed’) depending on certain needs or circumstances.

We are now investigating the activation status of a certain type of genes, the ones encoding the so-called microRNAs that are very important as they are involved in regulating the function of other genes. An alteration in the status of one of these genes can have numerous downstream consequences.

In particular, our studies highlighted several microRNA genes that are involved in multiple brain functions, like synaptic plasticity (variation in the strength of nerve signaling) or neuronal development. Now we will test these alterations in patients to try to find convergent abnormalities.

All this work is being done at the Department of Genetics, Microbiology & Statistics (Universitat de Barcelona) and at the Neuropharmacology lab at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, both based in Catalonia.

Co-authored by Bru Cormand, Judit Cabana, Noelia Fernàndez

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Food is addictive. It has been an addiction that has kept mankind alive for thousands of years. Today, hunger is no longer a problem in the developed world; it is quite the opposite. According to the World Health Organization, worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. Obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally, with at least 2.8 million people dying each year as a result of being overweight or obese.

In order to maximize the nutritional value, humans are hard-wired to prefer foods that have either a high sugar or fat content. The amount of energy obtained from food is measured in kilocalories (kcal) per gram. Fats have the most energy (9 kcal) and carbohydrates (sugars and starches) have the same amount of energy as proteins (4 kcal). However, these nutrients differ in how quickly they supply energy. Sugars and starches have the advantage of being converted into energy faster than fats and protein. Protein is preferentially used for building and repairing different tissues, not as an energy source.

Once a beneficial adaptation of preferring fast digesting or the most energy-rich nutrients, has now become a risk factor for both physical and also mental health (1), making it an inevitable research focus.

In a recent study at the Yale University School of Medicine (2) it was determined that people not only favour fatty or sugary foods, but place the highest value on those that combine both. Participants (tasked to make monetary bids on different food items) were ready to pay the most for cookies, chocolate, cake and other treats that had both high sugar and also fat content. Equally familiar, liked and caloric fatty (e.g., cheese, salami) or sugary foods (e.g., lollipops) were assigned lower values.

Based on surges of activity, brain scans revealed that foods high in both fat and sugar were more rewarding than foods rich in only one category of nutrient.

Unexpectedly, it was also observed that participants were very accurate at estimating the energy density (kcal) of fatty foods, but poor at estimating the energy density of sugar-containing foods.

Once rare, but nowadays common and abundant treats high in both fat and sugar are most rewarding and therefore can very likely contribute to overeating. In addition, it has turned out to be difficult for people to assess the amount of calories in foods with a high sugar content. These findings taken together can help to understand and also hopefully find new treatment options for people struggling with obesity.

  • Hoare E et al (2015) Systematic review of mental health and well-being outcomes following community-based obesity prevention interventions among adolescents. BMJ Open 2015;5:e006586. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2014-006586
  • DiFeliceantonio et al (2018) Supra-additive effects of combining fat and carbohydrate on food reward. Cell Metabolism 28, 1–12. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2018.05.018
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This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 728018

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