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Brain-researchers seem to be misinterpreting their own data

Higher fat diets in pregnancy appears to benefit learning and immune system. Yet in spite of the evidence, researchers concluded high-fat diets are harmful.

Perhaps as a reaction to yesterday’s publicity about research showing that long-term consumption of low-carb diets reduces insulin and promotes longevity (link to article), the proponents of a low-fat diet try to fight back. So far, their counterpunch lacks punch:

Anxious, or smarter?

“The high-fat groups actually learned faster than the low fat controls, contrary to our expectations. But we think it is because they were more anxious and therefore more motivated to escape the maze.” – Staci Bilbo, PhD, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. (link to article)

I can’t make much sense of this conclusion. I’ll admit I have a bias against low-fat diets. I do believe that since the brain is made of fat, a high-fat diet would likely promote healthier central nervous system development. And I have a hunch this researcher’s bias against low fat diets is throwing her off base completely. Which is a shame, because the good professor is being paid to be neutral and objective.

So here’s what the data says:
The high-fat groups actually learned faster than the low fat controls

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And here’s how the low-fat pundits spin it:
Because they were more anxious

But one could just as easily have said this:
Because their brains work better

In another quirky bit of reasoning, the authors conclude a more vigorous response to bacterial infection, which was seen in the high-fat group, is a bad thing.

Immune response was also negatively affected by exposure to a high-fat diet. When exposed to a bacterial challenge or “simulated infection,” the young-adult offspring of obese mothers “had a greatly exaggerated inflammatory response within the brain compared to low-fat controls,” she explained.

In other words, the rats from the high-fat group were able to eradicate the bacteria from their brain faster than the rats from the low fat group. That seems like a good thing to me. Researchers stick bacteria into rat brain, rat immune system eradicates the infection, problem over.

There are problems with concluding anything from this research because they’re not comparing apples to apples. They’re comparing normal weight rats eating low-fat diets with overweight rats eating high fat diets. Other research has shown that animals “eat to calorie, not to volume” so to make rats fat, they have to do some monkeying around–perhaps by denying them exercise or water, or by adding special substances.

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This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Another good point, Dana, about MSG not being exactly the same as umami. I think I know where Nancy was coming from and she does know her stuff, here I believe she was referring to the fact that MSG triggers the umami sensation, and not intending to equate the two but thanks for your clarification.

    Glutamic acid is an amino acid and is naturally occurring. However the (unnatural) process of hydrolyzing soy (yeast, and other vegetable proteins) can yield very high amounts of free glutamate which can impact our taste buds and cross the blood brain barrier and have MSG-like effects. It sure makes my cats overeat!

  2. Umami is not MSG, and glutamic acid is not the same thing as monosodium glutamate. MSG is a protein salt. I’ve done a little digging around to see if protein salts even occur in nature, but either I don’t know the right questions to ask or nothing is coming up. If they don’t occur in nature, that’d explain a lot about how we respond to them, I think.

    Glutamic acid IS naturally occurring, though–and probably not harmful unless maybe someone’s already sensitized from MSG intolerance.

  3. Amazing. They can’t leave the herd. You are one of the bravest people I know. I’m so loving your book, as sad as some of it makes me. Then again, it is a great reminder that we do have the power to be the best we can be. Thanks for reminding us all of that.

  4. I’ve found many doctors are foodies, and some of them really get into the source and traditions–eating grass fed/pasture raised, many raising their own pigs/sheep/chickens. Surprisingly though I haven’t met anyone except for a few doctors I work with here in NH who are willing to take it the necessary step further and say the cholesterol theory is flawed and it’s been carbs and trans fats that are killing us.

  5. Brilliantly stated and some great advice. Do you feel that some of the medical and scientific community is beginning to warm up to traditional diets? I have noticed that Dr. Oz is beginning to embrace some of the philosophy: he now talks of the benefits of coconut oil and has had Dr. Mercola on his show. He certainly wasn’t agreeing completely with Dr. Mercola, but on some issues he seemed honestly interested. Are you seeing that anywhere else in your travels?

  6. Hi Dr. Cate,
    Sorry to jump in again, but just read the link for the high-fat study. All I can say is– what? That study goes against every bit of traditional wisdom that any pre modern peoples have ever lived by. That is so completely off, it’s offensive. I really think they are misusing the words “obese mother” (and how did she get that way? on what foods?) and “high-fat diet”. They are not one and the same. I and my family eat a high fat diet….and none of us, especially my children, are overweight or obese. If anything they are nearing underweight. Money. Our side needs money and lots of it. Thanks for the great article.

  7. Hi Dr. Cate,
    Great article, and I love your Sherlock Holmes work on the research! I wrote an article on the dangers of MSG on Examiner.com, and was debated by another Examiner, whose opinions were also backed by studies.
    I am utterly amazed at the mass of studies done: one contradicts the next. I have my own assumptions that major funding is backing those studies that “verifty” a chemically processed additive like MSG to be “naturally occurring” and, therefore, safe. We know the difference between naturally occurring MSG (umami) and the manufactured version; however, there are studies that claim that MSG has no side effects.
    Here we are discussing low-fat/ high-fat diets, and the same bias applies. It is why I sometimes question my desire to bring activism for REAL food into my life. The hassles from the opposing side are overwhelming at times. Just last night I had a venom drooling commenter attack me and my backing of Sally Fallon and WAPF. I suppose standing firm in my beliefs and encouraging knowledge in open minded individuals is the highest purpose for my article writing and blogging. Plus, I get connected with wonderful doctors and fellow foodies like you and your husband! I’ll keep on if you will ; )

    1. Nancy you are bringing up a powerful question: How do you recognize truth?

      The reality is there are scientists of influence out there who don’t really deserve the titles they hold and what passes for science sometimes shouldn’t. I find a useful way to chose what is most likely to be true between two opposing viewpoints is to answer the question of which aligns best with what we know about nature, and go from there. When we do that, even if we veer a few feet to the right and left of the path as we move on, we have to be heading in the right direction.

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