Adverse effects of consuming high fat-sugar diets on cognition: implications for understanding obesity

Proc Nutr Soc. 2017 Nov;76(4):455-465. doi: 10.1017/S0029665117000805. Epub 2017 May 18.


There is increasing evidence for important roles of key cognitive processes, including attention, memory and learning, in the short-term decision making about eating. There is parallel evidence that people who are overweight or obese tend to perform worse on a variety of cognitive tasks. In this review, the evidence for these two ideas is summarised and then the idea that overconsumption of Western-style high-fat (HF)-high-sugar diets may underlie the association between obesity and poorer cognitive performance is explored. In particular, evidence in animals and human subjects that repeated consumption of HF or HF and sugar (HFS) diets leads to specific impairments in the functioning of the hippocampus, which underpin the consequent changes in cognition is summarised. These findings lead into the vicious cycle model (VCM), which suggests that these cognitive changes have knock-on negative effects for future appetite control, and evidence that altered hippocampal function is also associated with impaired appetite control is explored. The review concludes that there is consistent evidence in the animal literature and emerging evidence from human studies that supports this VCM. It is also noted, however, that to date studies lack the nutritional specificity needed to be able to translate these basic research findings into clear nutritional effects, and concludes that there is an urgent need for additional research to clarify the precise nature of the apparent effects of consuming HFS diets on cognition.

Keywords: BDNF brain-derived neurotrophic factor; DFS Dietary Fat and Free Sugar Questionnaire; HF high-fat diet; HFS high fat and high sugar diet; SF saturated fat; VCM vicious cycle model; Cognition; Diet; Memory; Obesity.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cognition
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / etiology*
  • Diet, High-Fat / adverse effects
  • Diet, High-Fat / psychology
  • Diet, Western / adverse effects
  • Diet, Western / psychology
  • Dietary Fats / adverse effects*
  • Dietary Sugars / adverse effects*
  • Eating / psychology*
  • Hippocampus / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Obesity / etiology
  • Obesity / physiopathology
  • Obesity / psychology*


  • Dietary Fats
  • Dietary Sugars