Low-Carb Brain Damage?

      78 Comments on Low-Carb Brain Damage?

WARNING:  This post includes shameless bragging by a proud papa.

A reader sent me this picture, snapped by his son during a nutrition class at the University of Missouri:

So a high-fat/low-carb diet will not only give you heart disease, it’ll damage your brain as well, eh?  My goodness.  Is there any research out there to support such a dire warning?

Turns out there is …

Fatty Food Linked to Brain Damage, Study Shows

EATING too much fatty food causes brain damage linked to obesity, according to new research. US scientists found a sudden change to a high-fat diet triggered inflammation in a key area of rodent brains responsible for regulating body weight.

The inflammation produced distinctive scarring similar to that seen in stroke patients – and that brain scarring was then observed in humans who were overweight. While the research does not unequivocally prove brain damage caused by fatty food is linked to obesity, it provides strong indications for further research.

“It would be unlikely you could injure that part of the brain and not affect the level of bodyweight, because that’s what that area does,” said Michael Schwartz, who is the director of the University of Washington’s Diabetes and Obesity Centre of Excellence.

My conclusion is that humans probably shouldn’t eat the crappy high-fat rodent chow (which is also high in sugar) scientists feed to rats in these experiments.

But since I have growing children, I was of course concerned by these warnings of impending brain damage.  My girls don’t consciously limit carbohydrates like I do, but we don’t keep cereal or bread in the house, they don’t eat sugar except on rare occasions, and on many days they’re perfect happy to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast, cheese and almonds for snacks, and some kind of meat with vegetables (usually drizzled with butter, cheese, sour cream or olive oil) for their other meals.  Their is diet definitely high in fat, and often ketogenic simply because of the choices they make.

So when Sara brought home her last report card, I opened it anxiously, looking for signs of brain damage. And there it was. Yes, she’d earned straight A’s, but she only got a 98 on her last math test.

“Sara, come here.”

“Yes, Daddy?”

“Did you miss a question on your math test?”

“Yes, Daddy.  I missed one.”

“Then you need to start eating Honey-Nut Cheerios for breakfast and drinking low-fat chocolate milk with your lunch.  This is not acceptable.”

“But Daddy, I’m the youngest kid in third grade, remember?”

I’d forgotten about that — probably because of my own brain damage.  Sara’s birthday is in November, and she started kindergarten in California as a four-year-old.  When we moved to Tennessee, where the laws are different, she had to pass a reading test before the school would allow her to start first grade as a five-year-old.  Many kids in her third-grade class are a full year older and therefore have an extra year of brain development.

My concern over the missed math question was partly alleviated when the results of her government-mandated reading and comprehension test arrived in the mail.  The government folks informed us that she reads just a bit below the seventh-grade level.  Considering that she spends hours and hours with her nose buried in some book, I’m glad to know she’s not just wasting her time.

My concern over the missing math question was fully alleviated when we were out for dinner one night and she began doodling on the paper tablecloth, drawing various shapes and quizzing me to see if I could identify them … squares, parallelograms, triangles and trapezoids.

Was I aware that the angles in a square are all 90 degrees and so all four angles add up to 360 degrees?  Yes, I assured her, I knew that.

I then drew (not very well) a parallelogram and informed her that the angles in a four-sided shape always add up to 360 degrees, square or not.  She told me that’s cool.

Then I drew a triangle.  “Sara, what do you think the angles in a triangle add up to?”

She looked at it for about two seconds.  “A hundred and eighty degrees.”

“That was quick.  How did you figure that out?”

She began drawing a second triangle next to mine.

“Well, Daddy, if I put two triangles together like this, that makes a four-sided shape, and you already told me the angles in a four-sided shape add up to 360 degrees.  So I just figured a triangle must be half of that.”

“That’s my girl!”  I said this a little louder than I intended and drew a few looks from other dinner guests.

I’m pretty sure if we don’t start feeding her laboratory-grade rodent chow, she can avoid the brain damage – in spite of her high-fat diet.

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78 thoughts on “Low-Carb Brain Damage?

  1. LaurieLM

    I briefly ran across three TV things in rapid succession last night in the span of just a few short minutes.
    I say briefly because I couldn’t stand to linger on any of them when I heard the intros, so I changed the channels. Unfortunately, I just kept going from one horror to the next. The first one started, ‘the labeling of grain on food is not correct……you may not be getting all that you think you are, and therefore not enough.’
    The problem is eating any grain at all, ever, not that you aren’t getting enough because of’ inaccurate labeling’. Au contraire, the labeling is perfect. There is a non-zero amount of grain in the products and anything above zero grams of grain you should avoid like plague. And then the next pearl of wisdom started ‘the CDC says 9 out of 10 Americans eat too much salt.’ HOKUM.
    The third and the most depressing was an ad for bariatric surgery. Sure, instead of trying a high-animal fat, no-sugar diet first, jump in and alter, irreversibly and re-plumb your digestive system- that’ll work out well.
    It is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic talk. Any amount of grain in the diet is a big problem and eating more of it is not the solution, and Salt is not the problem and cutting back on it is not the solution. Surgery for weight loss is a very poor, risky ‘solution’. The deck chair positions on the Titanic were not going to prevent the ship from sinking. Using one as a floatation device might have helped a passenger or two for a while, maybe

    And after they surgically remove a big ol’ piece of your digestive system, they put you on a diet high in protein and low in carbohydrates.

  2. Josh

    Why do they continue to do crappy science? Rodents ARE NOT carnivores!!!!!!!!! their natural diet would NOT include animal fats. And people wonder why there is so much confusion. amazing.

    It’s more a case of the media health reporters glancing at the study and running off to write dramatic headlines.

  3. Katy

    Re: I have a friend who’s wife suffers from seizures. She only speaks Spanish. Is there a Spanish language article I can print off or book that I can hand him to explain how diet can be used to treat her seizures? Anyone have any suggestions?

    I searched on low carb and seizures in Google, under advanced search, selecting Spanish as the language. It returns articles with Spanish titles, but with English text. Many, however, have a link Translate this page, which will give you the article in Spanish. Or, there will be a place at the top to select which language to translate to/from. One promising one is


  4. Brian

    I don’t understand how they can go to all this trouble to create this controlled study attempting to be as scientific as possible and yet they completely ignore the science of endocrinology. The high fat group was still only 60% of total calories coming from fat. They gave the rat enough carbs to get enough of an insulin response to make it gain weight and cause inflammation and probably the brain damage. Things like this really make me wonder if humans are making any evolutionary progress.

    Look on the bright side: 100,000 years from now we may be well-adapted to sugar and mutant grains.

  5. Galina L

    I also put my son in danger by raising him on a fat food. I remember how one of his friends was shocked when my son ate a cup of sour-cream. The friend in question is a very gifted boy, but with ADD, was drinking up to 1 gallon a day of a far-free milk in his teen-age years. Now guess who out of two boys grew up with the spare tire? But I encountered a problem anyway – math and science were so easy for my son, he had had a necessity to work hard for his grades. Most program are designed for “normal” children, the same facts are getting repeated over and over again until most the the class manages to grasp something. In the process “abnormal” children get bored and frustrated. Yes, feeding most of kids cereals, junk snacks and juices gives our children an advantage on one hand, but on another hand it creates a boring academic environment. I know my son will meet a challenge some day, I keep reminding him about it. But so far he is lean, without cavities, very capable intellectually, never catches any seasonal flu. He is double-majoring physics and chemistry now, in the middle of second year in university. Differential equations are still easy math! Now roommates are concerned about his unhealthy and unsustainable for the Earth diet, even his roommate’s mother(who is a manager in a healthy-food store) tried to interfere with a “healthy food” talk. Fat chance he would eat beans and tofu instead of his grass-fed meat! And on the top of it, paleo-diet costs less than eating in a

    … in a … ? (I hope you didn’t croak while writing that last sentence.)

    The girls’ school system has an advanced track in the later grades. I remember the boredom in grade school. Teachers used to tell my parents that I spent a lot of time staring out the window.

  6. Sam Knox


    I’m sorry, I don’t.

    Ketogenic diets for epilepsy have been used successfully since the 1920’s but, to this day, they are usually considered the treatment of last resort for patients that don’t respond to medication. So, even of your friend found a Spanish-speaking doctor, he/she is most likely to recommend medication first. On the other hand, if she is not responding well to medication, a ketogenic diet would be recommended by most doctors.

  7. Beowulf

    You know, as smart as your daughter is, you’d think the government would be happy that you’re feeding her a lower-carb diet. After all, she’d be so much smarter if she was on the SAD, and the government is very afraid of smart people. 😉

    We feed her bacon and eggs to be fair to the other children.

  8. Galina L.

    I don’t know what happened with the rest of the sentence – it was “cafeteria”. We we amazed that cafeteria food cost was $2000 per semester while self-cooked paleo-style food was $1200 per semester. Our son didn’t find cafeteria food particularly rewarding or addictive, and got at least couple flus during his first year.

  9. Steven

    That slide is a joke and concerning as it’s part of a university lecture. The last point is so far off the mark. Low carb dieters tend to have higher insulin resistance to spare glucose for the brain, this results in higher fasting blood glucose. This is while low carb dieters produce more ketones than high carb dieters, who have lower fasting blood glucose and are more likely to be hypoglycemic.

    Nevermind that ketosis is theraputic for a number of psychiatric, neurological and neurodegenerative disorders due to an increase in mitochondrial biogenesis.

    Apparently ketosis is therapeutic for several brain issues, but harms the brain the nonetheless. That’s the only conclusion we can draw.

  10. Nowhereman

    “And on the top of it, paleo-diet costs less than eating in a”

    I agree with Tom, I hope you’re okay there, Galina. Anyway, if I think you were going to say what I think you were, paleo actually is far cheaper overall than typical SAD or most vegetarian/vegan. It’s one of the perks I’ve noticed over the years is that once you get rid of the need for grains, you get rid of the huge cravings for sugar and more carbs that come with it, which in turn means you’re not spending daily or weekly on loaves of bread, candies, cakes, ice cream, etc. That saves a HUGE amount of money, which I then “reinvest” back into getting high-quality grass-fed meats, green veggies, nuts, coconut oil, and low-sugar fruits.

    It’s such a simple cycle.

  11. NM

    Sam: Why exactly are ketogenic diets considered a treatment of last resort? Why on earth would *medication* be considered better than resorting to a diet which has been proven safe for historic and evening living (traditional Inuit) communities? Bizarre!

  12. Janelle

    Speaking of “laboratory-grade rodent chow,” I see we’re going to be inflicting the equivalent on our military people now. I thought an article called “No More Mystery Meat” was going to talk about better cuts of meat being served in the mess hall, but instead it extolled the virtue of a low-fat, hearthealthywholegrain diet now being foisted on our soldiers. It’s disheartening (literally) that we’re still going down this road in the face of all the science standing in the way.

    Great … that’ll help keep the country safe.

  13. Ricardo

    Hi i was just wondering something. Ive recently learned that sugar can cause free radical damage. But in your video you stated something about Oxidative stress? Are those to the same thing and in your video you mentioned oxidative stress is bad but what causes it in the first place?

    Oxidation and free radicals:


  14. Galina L.

    I know why- my doctor told me than even when diet is useful for a treatment, doctors prefer a pill because no patient normally follows a diet for longer than 6 months or consistently. Taking pill proved to have a better adherence. Even though LC eating is very satisfactory , there is necessary to practice a discipline. Somehow it is not a popular idea among masses. I am on LC for 4 years and 3 months.

    In that case, doctors should explain why diet is the best choice, then threaten to prescribe pills if patient won’t make dietary changes.

  15. Sam Knox


    To be fair, some patients prefer medication to what can be a difficult diet to follow, and that’s a legitimate choice to make if well-informed.

    On the other hand, there’s no denying that profit plays a role, just like a lot of medication vs. lifestyle treatments (diabetes comes to mind).

    No money in getting someone to follow a diet.

  16. Andrea

    Anyone else heard of low carb psychosis? Personally I think it’s a big load of bologna, but I’ve been on the receiving end of of a very persistent anti low carb troll who swears I’ll eventually get it. If that were true I’d be inviting people over to play them my Huey Lewis Cd’s like Patrick Bateman a loong time ago. I’ve only even seen it discussed on the vegan propaganda sites like Atkinsexposed.com – anybody out there with some debunking of this stuff?

    Low-carb psychosis? Holy crap, now I’m wondering if I only imagined that whole Fat Head episode in my life.

  17. Linda Gilligan

    I have to agree with the advice to look into Khan academy. My eight year old has started it based on a recommendation from his 15 year old brother.

  18. Richard Tamesis, M.D.

    “Taking a pill proves to have better adherence.”

    I don’t know where your doctor got that, but patient compliance with drug therapy is a HUGE problem in medicine and is the most common cause of treatment failure, especially with multiple drug regimens whether with pills or eyedrops.

  19. Bear

    Actually, I have figured out that high fat/low carb diets does, in fact, lead to brain damage. People on such diets tend to bang their head on desks and brick walls a lot more often.

    There is that unfortunate side effect.

  20. Mike

    Here’s another cool fact: The sum of the exterior angles of any polygon will always be 360 degrees. Really useful for those geometry classes she’ll be taking sooner than expected.

    I like it.

  21. Ron

    Have you considered letting your kids grow up free on the farm instead of going to school? If they have plenty of books to read and you keep the TV off most of the time they’ll learn way more just messing around on the farm. Free exploration beats formal schooling for bright, curious kids. I would bet there are homeschool co-ops in your area where they could take a few classes and find friends to play with.

    They’re in the top-ranked school system in the state and they like going to school.

  22. Gunnershield

    @ Pai,

    No drug companies have a patent on steak and eggs………..yet

    Look at what Monsanto has done with wheat and soy. They just have to modify
    the gene and then they can patent it. It becomes their property and they can
    inflate the price to cover R&D. Then it will be healthy whole protiens over healthy whole grains.

  23. Eric

    One of the authors addressed this on his blog, and he’s one of the good guys.

    The fact is, we don’t know what aspects of D12492 cause injury to neurons and obesity in rodents, and we don’t know if those are the same factors that cause obesity in humans. That was not the point of the study! The point was to try to understand what’s happening in the brain during the development of obesity. Based on previous studies, the dietary fat itself is probably an important component that makes D12492 fattening in rodents, but whether high dietary fat would lead to obesity in the context of a well-composed whole food-based high fat diet, and a running wheel, is not known.


  24. Kay

    You had your comedy hat on for this post instead of you science-for-smart-people hat. I was looking forward to a good science based criticism of this study. I tried googling to see if anyone else had done a good criticism of this one (in addition to reading the actual study myself, which is available online without a paywall), and I found that one of the researchers also has a food-related blog at wholehealthsource.blogspot.com. In particular he addresses this study and how the media has misrepresented it at http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2012/01/high-fat-diets-obesity-and-brain-damage.html. This researcher is not completely on the other side of the diet fence from Paleos. He does give credence to the food reward hypothesis, but if you look at his Favorite Links he lists Mark’s Daily Apple, Free the Animal, Dr. Michael Eades, and the Weston Price Foundation. One of the books he recommends is by Price. Here is a quote from his post about this study:

    “The fact is, we don’t know what aspects of D12492 cause injury to neurons and obesity in rodents, and we don’t know if those are the same factors that cause obesity in humans. That was not the point of the study! The point was to try to understand what’s happening in the brain during the development of obesity. Based on previous studies, the dietary fat itself is probably an important component that makes D12492 fattening in rodents, but whether high dietary fat would lead to obesity in the context of a well-composed whole food-based high fat diet, and a running wheel, is not known.”
    (D12492 is the rat chow.)

    I think you might actually have an ally in one of the researchers involved in this study. Maybe you could interview him.

    He has a great post about sugar here http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.co.nz/2012/02/is-sugar-fattening.html (My browser comes up with .co.nz because I am in New Zealand. Maybe others should sub in .com.) This sugar post also goes into detail about rat chow diets.

  25. Kay

    Oh, I see Eric had pointed that out. I decided not to check to see if anyone had posted about the researcher before, since I had read the comments back in February. I did want to give some context about the researcher and encourage you to check him out though.

  26. Kay

    And I see you actually met the researcher, Stephan Guyenet, at the Ancestral Health Symposium.

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