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Connection Between Food, Obesity, and Decision Making

Connection Between Food, Obesity, and Decision Making

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According to research published this month out of the University of Montpellier in France, the most corrupt countries in the post-Soviet world tend to have the most overweight politicians. The more overweight the politician, the more corrupt the government according to a validated corruption measurement scale.

How are corruption and leaders’ weight linked? We’re not entirely sure, but this article will get into some research that makes connections between food and decision making. It is important to note that since this study was conducted only on post-Soviet states, it’s conclusions do not necessarily reflect the wider world; however, this study can point to important scientific correlations between how we live and the decisions we make.

Before we dig in, let’s get a few things out in the open:

  1. Carrying extra weight does not make someone a bad person, or less than. The study links the what, but further research is needed to zero in on the why
  2. Obesity isn’t always a matter of food and exercise choices. Weight can be influenced by food and exercise, but it isn’t always. There are so many factors that influence weight that are not easily controlled, like genetics, food intolerances, even toxic compounds in your environment. 
  3. Plenty of obese individuals make consistently great decisions. And, there are certainly corrupt individuals who have a healthy body weight. There are lots of factors outside of this study that shape a person’s personality. 

That said, past research has shown relationships between lifestyle choices and decision-making, and that’s what we’ll get into here.

Relationship between food and decision-making

It’s a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Do corrupt politicians tend to be obese due to already weakened decision-making mechanisms, or do their food choices change cognitive function?

Research has shown that food intake affects much more than physical appearance. Science shows the relationship between food intake and cognitive function, which includes decision-making. Nutritional decisions influence brain processes, including higher-level cognition.

Brain nutrients

The brain needs to be fueled properly to function at its highest capacity. Your brain is made up of fats, proteins and amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks to neurotransmitters, the chemical messages that carry signals between neurons affecting things like mood, sleep, attentiveness, and weight.

Omega-3 essential fatty acids found in food like nuts, seeds and fatty fish are crucial to the creation and maintenance of cell membranes. Having adequate levels of brain-happy nutrients, or not having enough, can alter how we feel and behave.

Brain and fat

Lots of research shows the benefit of diets that are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. On the flipside, studies indicate that diets with high contents of trans and saturated fats adversely affect your ability to think things through and focus on problems long enough to solve them. Long term consumption of trans fats and saturated fats - foods that we know are tied to obesity, like fries and pizza – greatly affect brain power.

In one study, rodents fed “junk food,” characterized by high contents of saturated fat and sugar, declined in cognitive performance and reduced activity in the hippocampus, a region of the brain, which is alarming because the hippocampus is the portion of the brain that plays a vital role in learning, memory and spatial navigation.

These findings suggest that diet has a direct effect on neurons, independent of insulin resistance or pre-existing obesity. More alarming is the fact that this diet elevated the neurological burden that was associated with experimental brain injury, as evidenced by worse performance in learning tasks.

Brain and sugar

Diets high in refined sugars are also harmful to the brain. In addition to impairing your body’s insulin regulation, high sugar also leads to inflammation and oxidative stress.

High glycemic food, like white bread, causes a rapid release of glucose into the blood. Next comes the dip. That’s why you have a short burst of energy followed by a crash after eating a bowl of pasta, and why you feel more steady after eating a protein-rich meal.

When leaders are making major decisions that affect large populations, it’s best to fuel in a way that keeps your energy levels and brain power strong all day, every day. Social decisions, such as helping, trusting, or social punishment are influenced by hormones and neurotransmitter states.

Negative effects of low-quality foods can lead to low fuel for your brain, which makes it take short cuts – aka, impulsivity in the face of complex decisions. Spending all day confronting challenging mental tasks means your brain has higher nutritional demands than the average person, and must be cared for properly.

Does diet affect poor decision making or does poor decision making affect diet? 

The answer is, both. There are several factors that determine a person's body weight, like genetics, economic situation, etc. One interesting point of the study on politicians reveals that these leaders did not demonstrate typical environmental preconditions, such as coming from overweight populations (genetics), lack of education or access to information, or coming from low socioeconomic conditions. 

So, leaders of Blavatskyy’s study did not fit the picture of what makes a person pu ton extra weight, which makes you wonder if shortcomings in decision-making capacity plays a role.

On top of that, poor nutritional decisions lead to fatigue, irritability, confusion, and up and down mood swings. Personality traits affected by nutrition may affect leaders’ daily lives and in turn, affect national decisions.

How to keep your own decision-making machinery strong

We all know that you have to eat. Your nutritional choices affect the most influential organ in your body – your brain. Diet, exercise and other aspects of our daily interaction with the environment have the potential to alter brain health and mental function, and you likely want to keep that in tip top shape.

You don’t have to be a head of state to need high-level decision power. You could be a manager or director at work. You could be a parent. You could be a school administrator. Healthy brain function will serve you well in all of these scenarios.

High level athletes have special nutritional needs. Working your mental muscles to exhaustion every day is no different. Give your body what it needs, and it will serve you well.