Guest article by Sam Hadadi,
Like it or lump it, we all know that sugar can destroy our health. Linked to everything from obesity to inflammation, disease and even ageing skin, the white stuff has been painted as the devil’s food over the last few years.
However, the sweet-toothed chocolate addicts among us can now breathe a sigh of relief. While some clever researchers have discovered that this sweet poison – and, in particular, fructose - can trigger huge changes in the genes in the brain, there may well be a cure for its dangers, in the unlikely form of omega-3 fatty acids.
Amazingly, scientists have recently discovered that, although these changes in genes can lead to all problems including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and even ADHD, diets rich in a special kind of omega-3 acid called docosahexaenoic acid (or DHA, if you want to keep it casual) could reverse the negative effects had by fructose.
Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? And full of potential for future treatment and research. And if you’re as excited by this as us, then read on - we’re going to tell you exactly what this study revealed about fructose and how its negative effects can be reversed.
However, before we delve into the study, let’s explain a little bit more about fructose…
As you may guess from the name, fructose is fruit sugar and is found in many, many plants. While this in itself isn’t all that bad (there’s the added bonus that when you add whole fruits into the equation, the fibre slows down your body’s absorption of the sugars), there’s a second type of fructose which is far worse for you.
The problem is, those clever food manufacturers know how to make tasty, addictive food. And, because of this, fructose also occurs as an added ingredient in processed foods. Manufacturers will often use corn syrup (a form of fructose) in their products as it’s sweeter and more addictive than glucose – and this is where we need to worry.
The problem is, fructose has been linked to “significant” weight gain, physical inactivity and body fat. As Michael Goran, director of childhood obesity research at the University of Southern California, told The Guardian: “In the long term, excess fructose is more damaging metabolically for the body than other sugars1”.
Worryingly, given the dangers of fructose, we consume huge amounts of it in sweetened drinks, syrups, honey and puddings. Scarier still is the fact that the Department of Agriculture thinks that the typical American ate an average of 27 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup in 2014.
If you’re interested in learning more about fructose and its dangers (as well as the foods you need to avoid!), check out our in-depth article by clicking here.
Now that you know all about the dangers of fructose, we can get back to the scientific part. In this study, a group of UCLA life scientists trained rats to escape from a maze, before they then randomly divided the animals into three groups.
Over the course of six weeks, one group of rats drank water sweetened with a huge amount of fructose (the equivalent amount to you and I drinking a litre of fizzy drinks each day.) Meanwhile, the second group was fed fructose water and a diet rich in DHA, while the third simply drank plain old water.
After the six weeks were up, the rats were put through the maze again. The animals that had been fed just fructose water worked their way around the maze about half quickly as those that drank only water. Researchers believe that this showed that fructose can harm the memory.
So, what of the rats who had been fed both fructose and DHA? Amazingly, they displayed very similar results to the rats who were only given water. The scientists concluded that this means those clever omega-3s, or the DHA at least, cancelled out the harmful effects of the fructose.
While this may not sound all that convincing, further tests on the rats revealed some even bigger differences. For starters, the rats on a high-fructose diet had higher levels of blood glucose, triglycerides and insulin levels than the other two groups. Scientists were particularly interested in this because for us humans, elevated glucose, triglycerides and insulin can trigger obesity, diabetes and a whole heap of other diseases.
The results of this study sound pretty impressive – and could be huge for the way we deal with the harmful effects of sugar in the future. But what’s going on and why does DHA (potentially, at least) protect the body from fructose damage?
As Xia Yang, a senior author of the study, said: "DHA changes not just one or two genes; it seems to push the entire gene pattern back to normal, which is remarkable. And we can see why it has such a powerful effect."
In other words, the damage that fructose does to our genes could well be balanced out by eating plenty of omega-3s.
To get to the bottom of this, the researchers sequenced more than 20,000 genes in the rats' brains and discovered that there were more than 700 genes in the hypothalamus (the brain's metabolic HQ) and more than 200 genes in the hippocampus (which regulates learning and memory) that were altered by fructose.
Scary, isn’t it? Especially when you consider that among the altered genes (most of which are comparable to genes in humans) were those that regulate metabolism, cell communication and inflammation. If these genes become faulty, they can lead to all sorts of conditions, such as Parkinson’s, depression and bipolar.
While we wouldn’t exactly recommend bingeing on sugar and then frantically trying to undo it with a bowlful of chia pudding and a side of (wild) salmon, we will say this: eat up your omega-3s!
You see, we need to eat plenty of these fatty acids to pump that DHA through our body since we don’t have naturally large amounts of it. To do this, we need to eat foods such as:
However, bear in mind that the same team of scientists have warned that DHA isn’t a magic bullet for curing diseases and more research needs to be done to see just how much it can reverse damage to human genes.
One thing’s for sure, though – we’ll be having salmon for dinner tonight…
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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food.