Eating a low-carb diet may help prevent brain aging according to a new study, but nutritionists aren't convinced

  • A new study by Stony Brook University suggests that a low-carb diet may prevent or even reverse the aging of the brain.
  • Researchers also found that neurobiological changes linked to aging can be found at a much younger age than previously thought, with signs being seen in people as young as 47.
  • However, registered associate nutritionist Jenna Hope pointed out to Insider that the study wasn't long-term enough to provide any conclusive findings.
  • She advised the public to focus on replacing simple, processed carbs with complex alternatives.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

The pros and cons of carbs have long been debated — the extremely carb-light keto diet has been incredibly popular in recent years, but health experts maintain that they're an essential fuel source for our bodies (and brains in particular).

Now, a new study is set to throw fuel on to the fire of the debate around carbs.

Research from Stony Brook University suggests that a low-carb diet may prevent or even reverse the aging of the brain.

The study, published in PNAS, found that neurobiological changes linked to aging can be found at a much younger age than previously thought, with signs being seen in people as young as 47.

But the researchers believe that by making certain dietary tweaks, mainly reducing consumption of refined carbohydrates, it's possible to reverse this.

Researchers used neuroimaging scans on nearly 1,000 people

The researchers conducted neuroimaging scans on nearly 1,000 people between the ages of 18 and 88.

They then assessed participants' brain responses after spending a week following either a standard diet or a low-carb diet, where meals might entail meat or fish with salad or leafy greens, but no grains, rice, sugar, or starchy vegetables like squash, sweetcorn, or parsnips.

Not even starchy carbs were permitted in the study.
Shutterstock/Jacek Chabraszewski

By depriving the body of carbs, it's forced to enter a state of ketosis, primarily burning ketones for energy rather than glucose. 

The researchers conducted a follow-up experiment on an independent set of participants who were instructed to consume a glass of glucose one day, and ketones another (both matched for calories and measured to each person's body weight), and their brains were scanned before and after each.

This was found to reinforce the conclusion that the differences in the brain scans were attributable to energy source.

The study also suggests a link between dietary ketosis and increased overall brain activity, as well as stabilized functional networks.

The study offers both good and bad news

"What we found with these experiments involves both bad and good news," said Stony Brook University professor and lead author Lilianne R. Mujica-Parodi.

"The bad news is that we see the first signs of brain aging much earlier than was previously thought. However, the good news is that we may be able to prevent or reverse these effects with diet, mitigating the impact of encroaching hypometabolism by exchanging glucose for ketones as fuel for neurons."

"We think that, as people get older, their brains start to lose the ability to metabolize glucose efficiently, causing neurons to slowly starve, and brain networks to destabilize," said Mujica-Parodi.

"Thus, we tested whether giving the brain a more efficient fuel source, in the form of ketones, either by following a low-carb diet or drinking ketone supplements, could provide the brain with greater energy. Even in younger individuals, this added energy further stabilized brain networks."

There are limitations to the research though

However, some nutrition experts advise taking the study's findings with a pinch of salt — or sugar.

"Whilst the study is interesting, it's important to be aware that the participants' brain networks were assessed after just one week of following a low-carbohydrate diet," registered associate nutritionist Jenna Hope told Insider.

"Long-term studies are important to assess the long-term results and the safety of these diets. A low-carb diet can pose risk of nutrient deficiencies and poor gut health over a prolonged period of time, and therefore it may be that the brain chemistry may be altered as a result of this." 

Although the keto diet has become popular for people who want to lose weight, Hope points out that it was initially designed as a treatment for children with epilepsy and it's widely understood to generate changes within the brain chemistry.

"Additionally, naturally the keto diet is free from simple carbohydrates," said Hope. "It's a possibility that these carbohydrates could play a role in the less positive effects associated with the standard diet group."

Nutritionists advise trying to eat more complex carbs

Before you cut all carbs from your diet, it's worth noting that the brain does require carbs to function.

What's more, carbs have been scientifically proven to make us happy — "they play an important role in transporting tryptophan (key to creating serotonin, the happy hormone) to the brain," registered nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert wrote in a blog post.

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Hope advised thinking about what type of carbohydrates you're consuming as a first port of call, trying to replace simple (eg. white bread, pasta, white rice, and processed food such as biscuits and crisps) with complex carbs (eg. sweet potatoes, brown rice, pulses, beans, wholegrain bread and pasta, fruit, vegetables, and oats).

"I recommend to reduce overall consumption of simple carbohydrates and focus on consuming complex carbohydrates as carbohydrates play a key role in maintaining a healthy gut function, the provision of certain nutrients and the secretion of key hormones such as the happy hormone serotonin," she said.

"Longer-term research is required before these findings should be implemented in everyday life." 

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