The hidden harm of fast food on brain and body

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Esther Aarts, a professor at Radboud University in the Netherlands, is raising the alarm for fast-food enthusiasts worldwide.

Beyond just causing weight gain, Aarts’ research suggests that diets high in fast food can lead to brain inflammation, setting off a so-called ‘obesity spiral’ that keeps people stuck in unhealthy eating patterns.

Heading the OBESITY_SPIRAL project until October 2025, Aarts and her team are delving into how our diet choices not only affect our bodies but also our brains, influencing our immune system and, consequently, our decision-making capabilities.

This research highlights a concerning cycle: the more fast food we consume, the less inclined we are to prepare or seek out healthier meal options due to brain inflammation.

Europe is currently facing an obesity epidemic, second only to the US, with nearly 60% of adults and one-third of children overweight, as reported by the World Health Organization in 2022.

Against this backdrop, the European Union is prioritizing healthier diets, with initiatives like Food 2030 aiming to tackle this issue through research and policy.

Fast food, characterized by its high calorie but low nutritional content, includes items like pizzas, sandwiches, and milkshakes.

These foods are rich in refined sugars and unhealthy fats, yet lack essential vitamins, minerals, and fibers. Aarts points out that such a diet can fulfill daily calorie needs in just one meal but leave you hungry shortly after.

The resulting chronic inflammation from increased belly fat can alter brain processes related to pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation, making it harder to choose healthier food options.

This inflammation isn’t just about feeling less energetic; it’s about a significant reduction in the body’s effort to make healthier food choices.

Aarts’ research aims to explore whether there’s a biological basis behind this lack of effort, potentially offering new solutions to combat obesity.

Beyond physical health, obesity carries a hefty price tag for society, increasing the risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers.

Aarts also highlights the mental health risks associated with obesity, including links to depression and Alzheimer’s disease. By 2035, obesity could cost the global economy more than €3.7 trillion, nearly 3% of the worldwide GDP.

Parallel research by Professor Nicola Gagliani at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany focuses on the immune system’s T cells and their interaction with diet.

His project, Diet-namic, ran until November 2022 and investigated how dietary changes affect T cells and, by extension, the immune response.

Through studies on mice and a small group of human volunteers, Gagliani’s team found that switching from a healthy to an unhealthy diet can quickly impair T cell function, increasing infection risk.

This work underscores the immediate impact of dietary choices on health and suggests the potential of dietary adjustments as part of medical treatment.

Both lines of research underline a critical message: the food we eat matters not just in the long term but every single day.

As we navigate our dietary choices, understanding the profound effects of those choices on our health and decision-making abilities could be key to breaking the cycle of obesity and improving overall well-being.

If you care about nutrition, please read studies about the best time to take vitamins to prevent heart disease, and vitamin D supplements strongly reduce cancer death.

For more information about nutrition, please see recent studies about plant nutrient that could help reduce high blood pressure, and these antioxidants could help reduce dementia risk.

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