Victus Spiritus


Does Your Diet Affect How You Consume Information?

12 Sep 2009

A large percent of the food available to folks in the US is infused with glucose, high frusctose corn syrup, and sugar. It's no surprise that we like sweet foods and beverages. I would wager that the average diet for a person growing up today is much more heavily compised of sugar and it's derivatives than most previous generations. But what affect does our food choice have on the way we prefer to process information, and communcate with each other?

Consider other species of life that have diets similarly dependant on sugar. Across the globe you'll find many forms of life that can benefit from sugar. Carnivores don't consume sugar directly, they get their nutrition from proteins created by other life. Many herbivores will consume sugar even though the majority of their diet may be fiber or grains. Some even specialize in starch rich plant life. Consider a much smaller life form, that consumes flower pollen, bees in particular. They create sugar rich honey to sustain the hive as sugar is an easy to digest high energy food. While we don't share many behavioral habits with bees, they are a species that has evolved to make sugar a dominant part of their diet. There is social information distrubution technology that in many ways mirrors the activity of bees though, the Internet.

The web has grown into one huge ecosystem in which over a hundred million hives have formed. Each hive created by one or more minds with a vision for how best to share and distribute information, ideas, and imagination. Amidst the changing world where semi-stable financial systems topple and are replaced by more rational survivors, the web has flourished. But it is not the structure of the web, but how we utilize it that is of relevance to this post.

Increasingly we consume nibble size pieces of information. On mobile smart phones we buzz from our email, social media status, or browse to our favorite news sites like HackerNews, Digg, or Reddit. Our uninterrupted attention span has diminished, we are never truly alone or without activity. Nutrition allows us to continually leverage our attention on topics of interest, and to enage in debates on those areas dear to us. I wondered if the type of nutrition we ingest affects our neurological processes when it comes to curiousity, reading, learning, and socializing.

A quick look to Google showed a couple of relevant studies on the effect of sugar on cognitive processes. Later today I'll come back and review the key points of each study.

Both papers share similar co-authors, Caroline R. Mahoney , Holly A. Taylor, Robin B. Kanarek with Priscilla Samuel contributing to the former only. Here are some key passages from the review of breakfast composition:

Due to compositional differences in protein and fiber content, glycemic scores, and rate of digestion, oatmeal may provide a slower and more sustained energy source and consequently result in cognitive enhancement compared to low-fiber high glycemic ready-to-eat cereal. These results have important practical implications, suggesting the importance of what children consume for breakfast before school.

One way that meal composition may influence cognition is through digestion rate. A higher fiber–lower GI and more slowly digested meal will maintain a more sustained release of glucose into the blood stream and to the brain. The oatmeal in the present study is characterized by a more sustained glucose release (measured in adults), compared to the sharper rise and fall in blood glucose associated with the high-GI ready-to-eat cereal [32,33]. The influence of GI on cognition has not been adequately examined. Results from recent studies suggest that low GI carbohydrate foods improve memory in young adults and rats [28] while another study showed similar effects between low and high
GI carbohydrates in older adults with poor memory and poor glucose regulation [38]. However, prior to the current study no research to date had examined the effects of foods of different GI on cognitive function in children with normal memory and normal glucose regulation. Glucose has been shown to enhance cognitive performance in people of different ages [29] and recent data also suggest that these enhanced effects may depend on task difficulty as well as level of glucose in the blood stream [29,39]. Meals can also influence the synthesis of brain neurotransmitters [40]. For example, a meal rich in carbohydrates increases the amount of brain tryptophan, which results in an increase in serotonin synthesis [41]. This effect can easily be reversed, however, if a meal contains a small amount of protein. Protein rich meals lead to increases in the tyrosine levels, which result in increased dopamine and norepinephrine synthesis [41]. Tryptophan and tyrosine appear to play a role in alertness, which has implications for cognitive performance. Lieberman and colleagues [41] found that consumption of a tryptophan pill led to lower ratings of alertness and vigor and higher fatigue ratings compared to consumption of tyrosine pill or a placebo [41]. Participants also had slower reaction times after tryptophan than after the tyrosine. Some studies have shown that carbohydrate rich
meals have an effect similar to tryptophan pills, increasing drowsiness and calmness compared to protein rich meals 42], while other studies have found that a low-fat/high carbohydrate breakfast is associated with a decline in fatigue compared to a medium fat/medium carbohydrate breakfast and a high fat/low-carbohydrate breakfast [19]. In the present study, while the oatmeal breakfast supplied the same amount of carbohydrate and fat as the ready-to-eat cereal, it contained more fiber and more protein, which may have contributed to improved performance in some cognitive tasks and differences in reported alertness and motivation.

Additional quotes and discussion to follow (but so far it appears high fiber nutrition may be the best for supporting several cognitive areas for children). More to come...