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.

If you enjoy my posts, please consider a small donation to the Fat Head Kids GoFundMe campaign.

78 thoughts on “Low-Carb Brain Damage?

  1. Be

    I am very happy to know you have a succession plan well in place!

    As long as she waits until I’m ready to retire. I’d hate to face her in hostile-takeover situation.

  2. Kim

    As usual Tom, you had me laughing out loud. Fortunately, I was in the privacy of my own home eating my dinner of lamb chops, sauteed kale and sauerkraut. I’m certain that with my after-dinner coffee loaded w/heavy cream & coconut oil will cause some serious brain damage. Pray for me, will ya?

    I’ll try, but the brain damage has made me forgetful.

  3. Hi, I'm a shark. I'm a shark!

    Zero comments? What is this! Absurd! Ludicrous!

    I haven’t read your blog in ages, so I am reading a ton of awesome posts. This one gets an A+.

  4. Mick Hamblen

    “Then you need to start eating Honey-Nut Cheerios for breakfast and drinking low-fat chocolate milk with your lunch. This is not acceptable.” I can always tell when you have your comedian hat on. HA!

    My comedian hat is purple.

  5. Lissa

    And you’re not homeschooling these lovely, brainy young ladies because why???

    They’re in the highest-ranked school system in the state and they like it. Vanderbilt scouts this school system looking for recruits.

  6. Ari

    You ever put your kid on Khan Academy? Khan actually made some positive references to the paleo diet in a couple of his videos. Also, the only time he referenced the fact he was snacking, he was actually snacking on almonds.

    Anyway, Khan is pretty much the best thing that has happened to education in the last thousand years or something.

    I must admit, I’ve never heard of Khan academy.

  7. Brian

    That slide is pretty shameless! I got so angry about it, I think I hurt my brain.

    And just think: that school is training the next generation of nutritionists.

  8. Stacie

    How come I know that there is a difference between ketosis and ketoacidosis, and yet a college professor does not?? There is something rotten in Denmark (Ha, Ha!)

    Apparently some professors simply regurgitate what they learned from their professors.

  9. Junebug

    Sometimes I am ashamed to be a member of the medical community.

    We won’t judge you by the misinformed opinions of your colleagues.

  10. Lori

    I have a scar on my forehead from running into a wall when I was about four, and a scar on my hand from burning myself on an iron when I was 18. They’re almost exactly the same size, and lighter in color than the surrounding skin. Coincidence? Is this why I can’t write notes or chop mushrooms with my head? I need a few million dollars to study the problem.

    Let us know what your study finds.

  11. greensleeves

    Brain damage? Dr. Eenfeldt dealt with this one a while back with his blog on Mattias Ribbing, the world-class memory champion. Ribbing is an avid and strict low-carber. So if anything, low-carb “destroys” your brain so bad you only win international memory prizes. Ribbing’s site: http://www.mattiasribbing.se/

  12. AndreaLynnette

    I tutor high school students who can’t answer those questions, nor can they reason like that. They live on Mountain Dew and potato chips and hearthealthywholegrain cereals for breakfast with skim milk. You’re doing something right!

    It’s a combination of genetics, encouragement, and a good diet.

  13. Katy

    Her skills in pattern analysis nothwithstanding, how about the fact that she know so quickly that 180 is half of 360? There are high school graduates around here that don’t know that (sad, yes, but hey).

    She’ll occasionally explain to me how she uses what she calls “tricks” to figure these things out, such as “If 18 is half of 36, then 180 is half of 360.”

  14. Wout

    That study is stunningly misrepresented. Here’s one of the authors defending it:

    Turns out that they weren’t proving that certain high-fat diets make rodents fat, they already knew that. What they showed is that when rodents are fed an obesity-inducing diet, you can detect scarring on the hypothalamus.

    About the diet:
    “D12492 is 60 percent fat by calories. Although rodents love the taste of it, it is not good for their health– susceptible strains of rats and mice will begin gaining fat in as little as a week on the diet, become morbidly obese by three months, sometimes develop diabetes, and live less than half a typical rodent lifespan if they are allowed to age (generally they are not). Personally, I refer to this diet as a “purified high-fat diet”, because that acknowledges that not only is it high in fat, it is also composed of refined ingredients. In our study, there is no way for us to know if what we observed in rodents was due to the dietary fat per se, some other aspect of the diet, or both. Based on other findings, I strongly suspect that it is both.”

    So what the study really wants to show is that the bagels that made you fat may have caused you some brain injury.

    Yup, another case of bad reporting by the drama-loving media.

  15. Ed Terry

    My favorite is when I tell a doctor about scientific evidence that refutes something they just said, and their response is almost always “well, everybody’s different” as if that explains anything. I’m always tempted to retort “well I guess that means all the medical guidance you provide is probably wrong since it only applies to a small percentage of people”.

    Glad to see that your daughter is “different”. However, I suggest you buy her a pink helmet, because she appears to have inherited a “functioning brain” and I can see her in the near future banging her head on the desk.

    She had one major head-banging incident as a toddler. Fortunately she appears to have escaped any lasting damage:


  16. gallier2

    Do you understand now why Stephan Guyenet now spouts off so much garbage lately (see ItsTheWoo’s blog for details). The Michael Schwartz cited above is his boss and mentor.

  17. LCNana

    Tom, great post, and funny stuff from you. Did I miss something or is there reference to high protein in the slide, then reference to high fat later in the references to rats? Quite a difference isn’t there? This is common when reference is made to Atkins.

    It’s a shame that Atkins (and many others) didn’t have the courage to stick to his guns. He knew that high fat was the way to go, but when writing a popular diet book it’s very hard not to water down your message so that the general population will actually follow it. So it became a high protein diet. So now we get the very mixed message all the time.

    It’s obvious that too much lean protein leads to bad things (like lots of time on the potty). Too many carbs also leads to very bad things (like obesity). And there is no such thing as too much fat – as it’s self limiting (just try eating a pound of butter). But because of our fat-phobia we’re somehow afraid to say: EAT FAT AND PLENTY OF IT. Even when describing something we think is bad!!!!!!

    Yes, unfortunately the people teaching these nutrition classes don’t seem to realize that ketogenic means high fat and low in carbohydrates.

  18. john

    A low carb diet can lead to “imbalances:” One of them is oxidizing more fat than you store.

    So ketosis results in brain damage but protects the brain against pretty much every neurodegenerative condition and numerable toxins. Great, now I don’t know which side to “believe.”

    Yeah, that’s a tough call.

  19. Rebecca

    These studies conducted on rats totally confuse me. Rats are not the same as humans. And aren’t they naturally grain feeding animals? We on the other hand certainly are not so just because a rat gets fat off fat doesn’t mean we will. Rats I believe don’t even have a gallbladder to regulate fat!

    It is sad that these people call themselves scientists and spread blatant lies to the public.

    I don’t think it’s the scientists spreading lies in this case; it was more the hyped-up interpretation by media reporters. A quote from one of the authors of the study:

    “I do not think this study suggests that dietary fat is inherently fattening or causes damage to neurons in humans.”

  20. Mr. Leedes

    So, just to get this straight – if a study comes out that says something other than low carb is the best thing in the world, then you have to search for some other reason why the study can’t be right? In this case, the test was done on lab rats (like — when do scientists ever do such an asinine thing as test on rats?) so you conclude that it must have been the rat food. Anything to keep the low carb indoctrination pure.

    Your personal test to disprove this involved asking your kid if she got any math problems wrong — wow Tom, and you say that the scientists are the ones that are wrong?

    No, I always search for reasons a study should be considered relevant or not. I ask myself the same series of questions I listed in my Science For Smart People speech. Readers have sent me links to quite a few studies that support a low-carb diet which I’ve dismissed for the same reasons: observational study based on unreliable food surveys, animal study not relevant to humans, etc.

    If you want to believe feeding rats a crappy, unnatural diet proves something about the effects of bacon and butter on human health, be my guest … but I hope to heck you don’t teach science.

    You don’t actually think I was offering the example of my daughter as scientific proof do you? I’m sorry if you have a difficult time recognizing sarcasm. Perhaps you need more saturated fat in your diet.

  21. Howard

    The rat chow typically used for Atkins-bashing is marketed by an outfit called Purina Test Diet, and is labelled 5TJP. Look it up on Bing (a search engine that gets more high-quality results than Google). It is a little over 9% *CRISCO* plus nearly 1% *CORN OIL*. Sucrose and cornstarch are added because otherwise, you can’t get rodents to eat enough of it to gain weight.

    The alternate Atkins-bashing rat chow, 5TSY, has apparently been discontinued.

    More accurately labelled crapinabag.

    Results from using Atkins-bashing rat chow prove beyond any possible doubt that trans-fats and sugar are bad for rodents. And that Purina Test Diet is intellectually dishonest.

    So we’ll make a note to avoid sugar and trans fats.

  22. Jim

    Many of you on this blog may already know this, but I believe Stephan Guyenet (Whole Health Source) is also listed as one of the authors in this “study”. His thrust is promotion of a neurological base for obesity along with his mentor Schwartz. This publication was discussed by Guyenet on his blog and promoted as additional support for their “brain-based” model of obesity – food reward and caloric excess leading to brain alterations (injury?) that lead to obesity. Unfortunately, I think the “study” lacks merit due to the “wonderful PUFA” diet that the rodents ate. Yes, hypothalamic brain damage can lead to metabolic problems, but how naturally does this occur? The more you read the literature on rodent studies and the diet they are provided, the more you wonder about the validity of the conclusions.

    I just can’t get excited about the results of feeding rats an unnatural diet. I don’t see how that could possibly apply to humans eating natural fats.

  23. Charlotte

    Oh, OBVIOUSLY you have a brain-damaged daughter! I mean, kids that age shouldn’t be able to read, do math, apply reason AND logic! They are supposed to be slumped on the couch watching Spongebob and knowing what present they want for their birthday/Christmas! How dare you!

    *turns off sarcasm*

    If that’s what I can expect from my son by going low-carb, sign me up! 😀

    She can watch mindless TV with the best them when she feels like it, but once she starts digging into a book she enjoys, you can’t pull her away. I’m grateful that we don’t have to push her to read.

  24. Firebird

    Ketosis and ketones are bad? Then why was Dr. Oz pushing raspberry KETONES as a way of shrinking fat cells?

  25. Raina

    Adorable kids! Good job watching out for them — so many people decide that they know how to raise kids better than loving parents.

    Frankly, I cheat every now and then. I’m at a healthy weight, in good health with no food allergies, so while I try to follow a healthy diet 90% of the time, that means that I will indulge in popcorn, pasta, ice cream and chocolate chip cookies (not in the same dish!!) occassionally. Guess when I feel more “brain damaged” — the morning after a paleo meal or the morning after a carb heavy one? I even have to schedule chances that I might have a cheat meal (go out with friends, a party, etc.) around my work schedule so I don’t show up in a carby fog when I have an important meeting. If I really overconsume, I know it. Oddly the same thing doesn’t happen with bacon-wrapped steak.

    I remember being in a day-long conference a few years back with another programmer as we tried to work out some tricky issues on a proposed system. I ate a meaty, fatty, ketogenic lunch. He had a turkey sandwich and chips. Around 3:00, I was ready to keep going but he began looking distracted and finally said, “We have to finish this up tomorrow. My brain is fried.”

    Yup …

  26. Lynnanne

    Slightly OT: On my way into the cafeteria at the health insurance company where I work, I just passed an electronic sign that’s alternating between their “Healthy Family Program” (low fat eating and hours of exercise, of course), and an advertisement for the candy company that will be here tomorrow selling boxes of chocolates for Valentine’s Day gifts. I’ve got to go back to my desk now so I can bang my head.

    Put a pad on it first.

  27. LXV

    “And aren’t [rats] naturally grain feeding animals?”

    Mice are. Rats however, are true omnivores (it’s commonly said that a good diet for a human is a good diet for a rat). Rats happily eat eggs, hunt ducks and birds, drink blood, and even dive for shellfish. Cereals do form a large portion of their diets, but that has more to do with availability than anything else. For lab studies that would be unethical to perform on humans, rats are, for many things, as close as you can get.

    And yes, rats lack a gallbladder. However they do produce bile in their livers that goes right into their intestines.

    And knowing is half the battle!

  28. Lori

    Rats eat a wide variety of foods, and not all grain based. They are omnivores in the wild. So, if you put them in a lab situation and only feed them a high carb diet, then they are not eating a “natural” for them diet. No wonder their brains suffered!

  29. Rocky

    My personal physician is an awesome, prevention-minded person. While complaining to me about the sad state of medical school education, he observed that extent of his med school nutrition training was three, one-hour “lunch and learn” sessions.

    Sounds about right. Probably a low-fat lunch, too.

  30. Katy

    The rats around my area get under the hoods of cars and chew through the hoses. Not sure if they actually swallow the stuff, or are simply exercising their jaws and sharpening their teeth for future feeding adventures.

    Could just be a local rat gang causing trouble.

  31. Sam Knox

    I’ve been looking at long-term follow ups of epileptics using a ketogenic diet to suppress seizures.

    There are some side-effects. Brain damage, oddly enough, does not appear to be one of them. (Neither does a fatty liver, which is why I was looking in the first place.)

    Fatty liver isn’t caused by eating fat. There’s a reason they force-feed corn to geese to give them fatty livers for foie gras.

  32. Galina L

    I also live my life without a gallbladder. It took some period of adjustment after the surgery when the gallbladder was removed, but now my meals are pretty high in fat.

  33. Elenor

    “My comedian hat is purple”

    (Don’t tell Chareva, but I love you. You make me laugh out loud, a sorely needed break from life! Thank you Tom — for all you do!)

    (p.s., I actually finally DID try marrow — spurred on by the bravery (?) of your paleo girls. Lamb osso bucco from Costco with a night in the Crockpot — WOW-YUM!!)

    Marrow is delicious. Great way to add flavor to a stew, too.

  34. Peggy Holloway

    Is there any way to get corrected nutrition information to the professor of this class? Like a barrage of emails from concerned citizens?

    No idea who the professor is.

  35. Chareva

    @Sam Knox. 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?

  36. Scott Donohue

    Hi Tom,

    First off, you are a hero of mine. Fat Head is a life changing movie. I was never quite overweight, but at 40 I started slowly putting on the tummy. I’ve got control of that, and I am also in the best shape of my life thanks to the introduction YOU have given me to proper nutrition and exercise. I’ve ventured out all around, now.

    Slight post hijacking, but I saw above you did not know Khan Academy. Sal Khan is basically building a free university. Serious, no joke. Dig around the entire website for info (Check out his TED.com talk that Bill Gates makes an appearance at.)

    I know you are a bit of a Renaissance Man, so you will get lost on the website in the best possible way. If you just like playing with numbers for numbers’ sake, then check out Vi Hart’s videos, the first of which I will link here : http://www.khanacademy.org/video/doodling-in-math–spirals–fibonacci–and-being-a-plant–1-of-3?topic=vi-hart
    She uses stop motion, so the camera can be a bit jerky at times, but they are wildly entertaining. Sal is another one of my modern heroes (along with the aforementioned host author of this site, Taubes, Dr. Lustig, Denise Minger, Richard Nikoley, ohhh… the names go on and on.

    I just noticed there is a diabetes/glucose/insulin video posted. Hhmmm… something new to check out!

    Please keep up the good work. I know from what I have read on here for the past year that I have been coming regularly, that there are people on here that you have helped tremendously, even though you have never met, and may not know their specific situation, but you gave them a key to unlocking the physical ‘self’ they were supposed to have been born with.

    Cheers from a big fan!

    Thank you, I’ll give it a look.

  37. ethyl d

    Tom, a tiny typo to fix in the reply to the comment by S. Knox, 2/7/12 at 3:54pm: foi is ‘faith’; foie is ‘liver.’ Sorry, but ‘fat faith’ sounds funny if you know some French. No need to put this comment up if you just want to fix the spelling.

    Thank you. My French sucks … although I do have faith in fat.

  38. Marilyn

    A sign of the times? No, not the sign at the top of this page. This is a bit OT, but yesterday, I made up a recipe I found in a magazine. The recipe had been a winner in a contest. My recollection is that such things were often “tested in the kitchens of yadayadayada….” This recipe had been “tested by the FOOD AUTHORITIES (my emphasis) of Better Homes and Gardens.” Egad.

  39. Bridget

    I was forced to read that sort of drivel in my Nutrition class last semester. I had to bite my tongue a lot when I read people enthusiastically responding to a Low-Fat High-Carb diet because I just wanted to finish the class. I did mention your movie however, hopefully it reached someone.

    We can hope. It’s a shame people who know better have to give answers they don’t agree with just to get their degrees.

  40. Nowhereman

    “Yup, another case of bad reporting by the drama-loving media.”

    You forgot to add in “agenda driven”, Tom. 😀

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