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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Column: This is your brain on food

We know food has a dominating effect on our body. This is why we talk of stomachs exploding, cookies going to thighs and beers expanding bellies. But for some reason, we don’t connect the same sort of food effect to our mind.

While you might feel guilty that the In-N-Out animal style fries you had for dinner will make you feel sick later, you still assume there’s a barrier between our food and our thought process. Those fries will make you feel sick, but they won’t alter your mind. Compare this to how you might think about alcohol. It’s pretty clear that drinking will temporarily change the way you think and behave. It might be that the buzz you get from drinking is fast acting.

Whatever the reason, it’s easy to forget that food has an effect. Our mind is a product of our brain, itself beholden to chemical reactions and input. For example, our mood is influenced, in part, by the function of three neurotransmitters: serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Each of the three is related to what we eat.

Norepinephrine and dopamine induce alertness in the brain. Serotonin levels, which increase with the consumption of foods high in carbs (pasta, candy and cereal, to name a few) has the opposite effect. Higher levels of serotonin lower anxiety, lead to drowsiness, and improve mood. Calm, sleepy and happy? This is the driving force behind that food coma you had this weekend. In other words, avoid meals dense with carbs if you need your brain running at full capacity.

Eating large meals that are high (the two usually go hand in hand) in fat also have the ability to induce sleepiness and sluggishness. Large meals call more blood to the stomach region and away from the brain. With less blood to your brain, your mind tends to move slower until the meal has been fully digested.

Dopamine and norepinephrine, which give you increased focus and concentration, are a little trickier. Scientists know that eating foods rich in protein somehow relates to our alertness. Either proteins work to block the production of serotonin, or something within protein directly produces dopamine and norepinephrine. Whatever the cause, consuming a protein source an hour or so before a study session or midterm helps.

Some foods have a more sinister effect on your mind. Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute designed a study to understand how junk food affects the brain. They took two groups of rats and offered the control group a relatively healthy diet rich in nutrients, but low in calories. The other rats ate as much processed food as they wanted -bacon, cheesecake, Ho Hos, etc. The second group quickly developed compulsive eating behaviors, and soon they ate twice as much food as the control group.

Five days into the study, the pleasure centers of the brain were less sensitive for the latter lab rats. They needed significantly more junk food to achieve the same level of pleasure they were reaching just five days earlier. The scientists noted the parallels between junk food and previous research on drug abuse. This reaction was no different from the heroin abuser who constantly requires a bigger hit to reach the same high.

Upon making this connection, the scientists upped the stakes by introducing an electrical shock. Both groups of rats would receive a tiny foot shock each time they consumed food. Rats in the control group who were not exposed to much junk food stopped eating. They did not enjoy food as much as they disliked the shock. Rats in the junk food group hardly stopped a beat. They continued to eat more and more junk food despite the shocks. At this point, pain was a distant concern compared to reaching their habituated high. The rats were addicts.

Food cannot just influence your mind; food can take over your mind. That’s a scary thought, isn’t it? Food can be responsible for a sour mood in the afternoon. Maybe your breakfast (or lack thereof) directly affected your performance on a midterm today. Hopefully, it’s a thought that changes the way you look at food. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, late night runs – these aren’t just things we put in our body for energy. There’s a popular saying: we are what we eat. I think it’s more specific than that. We think what we eat.

Eat a good meal an hour before contacting RAJIV NARAYAN at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu so the message is decidedly positive.


  1. When you abuse drugs, this might be damaged your brain neurons.

    I have read an article who used drugs and sell it. According to the news, Prosecutors have opted for a plea deal where District Court Judge Camp admitted guilt to several drug-related charges. I found this here: Judge Jack Camp guilty of doing drugs with Sherry Ann Ramos Among other things, Judge Camp admitted that he gave prostitute Sherry Ann Ramos money for substances. The judge has admitted guilt to three charges. The maximum punishment for these allegations is four years in prison.


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