Atkins diet can damage your memory

A research project led by Professor Holly Taylor of the Tuffts University of Massachusetts and published in the journal Appetite has found that low-carbohydrate diets such as the Atkins diet can harm your brain.

The diets, which have been popularised through the endorsement of celebrities such as Renée Zellweger, Geri Halliwell and Jennifer Aniston encourage dieters to cut out carbohydrates like pasta, bread, potatoes and even some fruit and vegetables. At the height of its popularity an estimated three million people in Britain were thought to be on the Atkins diet.

The study monitored 19 women aged between 22 and 55, who started to follow either a low carbohydrate diet or one based on a more traditional low fat approach. After just one week, the women on the low carbohydrate eating plan started to suffer a gradual decline in their ability to perform memory-related tasks compared to women who were on the low fat diet and their reaction times also became slower.

Neuroscientists believe that the study's findings could be as a result of the way in which the brain uses glucose, a type of sugar obtained from carbohydrates in food, as a form of fuel. Because the brain cannot store glucose, it needs a constant supply to enable it to function. This theory is reinforced by the fact that the study found that when carbohydrates were re-introduced to the women's diets, their mental function appeared to return to normal.

Although the sample size was small, this study provides empirical evidence that suggests that diets can affect more than just weight. Because the brain needs glucose for energy, diets low in carbohydrates can be detrimental to learning, memory and thinking.

Published January 2009

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