How Serious is Obesity and Eating Healthy?
By: Anthony Wang
One of the most popular causes of heart disease and heart failures is the dietary habits associated with obesity. However, with much of the controversy surrounding personal lifestyle choices and human longevity, obesity becomes a sensitive topic, as it’s seen as more of a choice instead of a circumstance in today’s media. But did you know that obesity can do so much more than mess with your heart, messing with your brain development and cognitive abilities? With science, we can come to see that obesity can have its roots in human critical periods of development, where simply eating the wrong things at the wrong time could set people up for life.
For a little background into the topic, we use the term “obesogenic diet” as a way to describe diets that are conducive to the development of obesity. The foods that are generally referenced are high fat and high simple sugar foods, which we already know can be indicative of someone developing obesity. Unsurprisingly, obesity can affect more than just your heart and the state of your arteries; cognitive impairment, lowered hippocampal function, and lowered neuron neurogenesis are just some of the risks associated with obesity. As this epidemic increases in scope, research continues to produce more and more bad news about obesity and its harmful effects.
In a mice study done by the University of Southern California, they found that spatial learning, spatial memory, information learning, and relational learning were all impaired when an obesogenic diet was consumed at the juvenile stage, while the adults on this diet had generally no changes in this area. There have been tons of correlations between obesogenic diets in early adolescence and obesity with generally poorer cognitive performance, but this recent set of research might imply that it’s not just correlative. The idea that simply what you eat when you’re a kid can make it more difficult for you to learn or succeed in school raises questions about whether or not we should make availability and affordability of healthy foods a right. After all, wouldn’t it be inhumane to impair or damage a child’s chances at success and life in general in a land of equal opportunity, just because they had to eat cheap, fast food in order to survive?
The worst part about it is that changing your diet after adolescence might not even improve your condition. The idea that developing obesity and eating an obesogenic diet affects adolescence more seriously than adults brings up the possibility of the human critical period.
You’re probably wondering what this is. This is a graph of the possibility of developing many critical-period dependent characteristics that we see in all kinds of species. A critical period is defined as a time period of fast growth that makes an organism especially susceptible to certain stimuli. You’ve probably heard of the imprinting duckling, which is the most common example of a critical period. When ducklings see animals other than its mother, the duckling is said to have imprinted, and will think that it is the animal it imprinted with forever. Extending this idea to obesity, eating an obesogenic diet as a kid, or the critical period of your life, changes you in a way that would last your entire lifetime.
This is probably a lot to take in, but discussion needs to start somewhere. Much of the evidence surrounding this topic points in this direction, and it’s up to us to start thinking about the impact of the diet on the future generations, especially for those who don’t have immediate access to healthy, fresh foods.
Noble, Emily E., and Scott E. Kanoski. “Early life exposure to obesogenic diets and learning and memory dysfunction.” Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences9 (2016): 7–14.