Psychology professor John Gunstad studies the connection between obesity and cognitive problems
Could losing a few pounds actually make you smarter?
By Erin Peterson | Illustrations by Mikey Burton ’08
Researchers have long known that carrying extra weight can be hard on our bodies: studies show that obesity is linked to higher rates of heart and liver disease, for example.
Those extra pounds may be weighing down our brains, too, says John Gunstad, Ph.D., professor of psychological sciences and director of Kent State’s Applied Psychology Center. “Our research has found that individuals who are overweight—not even obese—have difficulties with memory and problem-solving that their normal-weight peers don’t.”
For example, Gunstad’s research has found that people who carry excess weight have more difficulty acquiring new information and skills and also struggle more to recall recently learned information when they need it. They also are more likely to struggle with “executive functioning”—a set of skills that includes planning, organizing and problem-solving.
Those additional difficulties can compound the already challenging work of losing weight in a way that almost seems like self-sabotage. “An individual trying to lose weight might have a hard time remembering to pack all their exercise clothes and equipment for their class at the gym, or fail to bring a healthy snack from home and get stuck at the vending machine later in the afternoon,” Gunstad says.
So what’s going on? Though researchers are still trying to suss out the links, Gunstad suspects it’s a combination of several subtle factors. Gaining weight seems to make it harder for our bodies to regulate blood sugar, and even modest disruptions in these blood sugar levels can make it harder for our brains to work the way they’re supposed to. Extra weight can also damage blood vessels. Such damage may affect the amount of oxygen getting to the brain, which in turn can “starve” the regions of the brain essential for memory and problem-solving activities.
If you do successfully drop even a few pounds, all these changes are reversible, and the improvements in brain function happen almost from the moment you shed the weight. “Individuals who start losing weight may notice improvements even within the first couple weeks,” Gunstad says.
Maintain a healthy weight: Following a Mediterranean diet to avoid developing prediabetes or type 2 diabetes may help you lose weight, lower blood sugar levels and keep the brain working as it should.
He has requested funding to develop a smartphone app that could remind people trying to lose weight to make healthy decisions—pack a lunch, take the stairs, grab the gym bag on the way out the door—right when they need them. “We want to find ways to provide support systems in people’s everyday lives,” says Gunstad.
Erin Peterson is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.