Students Beware: Sugary Diets May Impair Learning

By: Jenna Savage

Whether you are studying for finals or getting ready for summer classes to start, you may want to steer clear of food and drink products that are high in sugar. A study conducted by the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) suggests that diets high in fructose can interfere with learning and memory, the UCLA Newsroom reports. In the U.S., high-fructose corn syrup is so prevalent, it can be found in many products – from soft drinks to baby food. In fact, the UCLA article reports that the average American diet includes the annual consumption of 35 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup. That large number doesn’t include cane sugar, which is a source of fructose, and of which Americans consume 47 pounds annually.

Because Americans have diets so high in sugar, reports of the negative effects of fructose are alarming. Previous studies have already linked fructose to diabetes, obesity, and other serious health issues, but this new study indicates that fructose harms more than the body – it also hurts the mind.

The study examined two groups of rats that were given a fructose solution in lieu of water for six weeks. Both groups ate a normal diet, but one group also received flaxseed oil and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are omega-3 fatty acids, because studies have shown that these fatty acids reinforce the brain against damage to the chemical connections that facilitate memory and learning. The other group did not receive omega-3 fatty acids.

After the rats drank the fructose solution for six weeks, researchers tested them in a maze they had learned to navigate prior to the change in diet. They found that the rats that were given omega-3 fatty acids in addition to the fructose solution had better recall and navigated the maze much faster. Meanwhile, the rats that drank fructose without the omega-3 fatty acid supplements showed decreased synaptic activity. Their brains were slower and the rats had trouble thinking clearly, which affected how they navigated the maze – slower and with poorer recall.

From these results, researchers conclude that fructose may slow learning and retention. They advise people to keep their diets low in fructose, and substitute sugary food and drink products for healthier alternatives. For people that choose to indulge in sugary foods and drinks, researchers recommend eating foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon or flaxseed, or taking a daily DHA supplement, which will protect the brain’s synapses against the harmful effects of fructose. According to the UCLA article, one gram of DHA daily is recommended.

So if you’re working on assignments, getting ready for finals, or preparing for summer classes, you may want to lay off the sugar. Otherwise, you may find yourself feeling sluggish and unable to remember everything you study.