July 17, 2012 by Jeanne Rust
Fat Avoidance Can Hinder Brain Functioning
"High achieving, bright, and intelligent." These commonplace clinical descriptors of individuals with eating disorders are now backed by data, suggesting that what treatment providers have been reporting all along is actually right on point with the research.
Eating Disorders and Intelligence
After analyzing 30 peer-reviewed articles related to measures of intelligent quotient of those with anorexia, a research team discovered at least average and often higher than average measures of IQ than the normative population (Lopez, Stahl, &Tchanturia, 2010). This meta-analysis included 849 participants receiving treatment at various levels of care.
What astounds me most is that among the studies that provided Body Mass Index (BMI) data, the mean BMI of participants from each study ranged from 13.7-17.9. There were some very critically underweight participants with very high IQ scores. Lower BMI did not necessarily correlate with lower IQ. Just imagine if the participants had been feeding their brains. Their scores might have been off the charts!
Brain Fog from Malnutrition
I remember a hazy brain fog while actively engaged in the eating disorder. I was definitely not up to par with my abilities. Even presenting with a low BMI, therapists always considered "intelligence" as one of my strengths. I did too! Although I maintained some of my cognitive abilities while malnourished, I still noticed an overall decline.
While everyone experiences mental sluggishness from time to time, I experienced prolonged memory loss, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, chronic mood swings, increased anxiety, and even low frustration tolerance the longer I failed to take in needed nutrients.
Fats Nurture Brain Health
Fats are one of three of the major macronutrients the body requires on a daily basis to function optimally. Nearly two thirds of our brain is composed of fatty tissue. Yes, this same brain that accounts for your intellect is highly concentrated with fatty tissue that requires very specialized fats to function properly. Actually, every cell in our body needs fats to function, but especially the 80-120 billion nerve cells, or neurons, in the human brain! The brain is an incredibly hardworking organ. Did you know that even when your body is at rest, the brain expends over 20% of your caloric intake?
Essential Fatty Acids
Brain cells are built from essential fatty acids (EFA's). They are called essential because you must consume these fats through dietary sources as the body is unable to manufacture them. In particular, omega-3 EFA's are highly concentrated in the brain and are essential to your cognitive function (Barnard, 2011).
Losing my ability to think clearly and rationally was probably one of the more devastating consequences of having an active eating disorder. I remind myself quite often to "feed my brain" because only when it is nourished can I make any use of the tools and skills I have learned from treatment and therapy. Only when I feed my brain does it have a fighting chance against ED!
Many individuals with anorexia avoid dietary fats for prolonged periods of time. In fact, Holman et al. (1995) discovered that individuals with anorexia tend to have suboptimal levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-3's included. Omega-3 deficiency symptoms related to brain health include: fatigue, poor memory, mood swings, anxiety, and depression, all of which can create mental sluggishness. This is because omega-3 EFA's are crucial for allowing nerve cells to communicate effectively and efficiently, a necessity for sound mental health.
One way to Outsmart ED
Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of those struggling with eating disorders are avoidant of dietary fats, making it difficult to consume enough EFA's. Goncalves, Ramos, Suzuki, & Meguid (2005) discovered omega-3 fatty acid supplementation among those with decreased food intake stimulates the production and release of hormones and neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine.
We are smart, intelligent, and witty people. According to the research, this is truly one of our great strengths. It has been said that ED is "cunning, baffling, and powerful". Help outsmart your ED by giving your brain the type of fuel it needs to function optimally! Think of fats, especially Omega-3s, as BRAIN FUEL!
Speak to your healthcare providers and treatment team to discuss whether you may benefit from increasing your omega-3 intake through dietary changes or supplementation. In the next segment of this blog, we will provide you with ideas of how to increase your omega-3 consumption through dietary options.
Barnard, S. (2011). Does Omega-3 Clear Brain Fog? (Aug 2, 2011). Retrieved from http://www.livestrong.com/article/508164-does-omega-3-clear-brain-fog/
Holman, R.T., Adams, C.E., Nelson, R.A., Grater, S.J.E., Jaskiewicz, J.A., Johnson, S.B., & Erdman, J.W. (1995) Patients with anorexia nervosa demonstrate deficiencies of selected essential fatty acids, compensatory changes in nonessential fatty acids and decreased fluidity of plasma lipids. Journal of Nutrition, 125, 901–907. (URL: http://jn.nutrition.org/content/125/4/901.full.pdf)
Goncalves, C. G., Ramos, E.J., Suzuki, S., & Meguid, M.M. (2005). Omega-3 fatty acids and anorexia. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 8(4), 403-407.
Lopez, C., Stahl, D., & Tchanturia, K. (2010). Estimated intelligence quotient in anorexia nervosa: A systematic review and meta-analysis of the literature. Annals of General Psychiatry, 9:40, 1-10. (URL: http://www.annals-general-psychiatry.com/content/pdf/1744-859X-9-40.pdf)