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Pitt Researchers Say Diet Links to Hyperactivity, Learning Problems in Teens

The adage “You are what you eat” is considered to be fairly universal, but researchers at the University of Pittsburgh say it’s what you don’t eat that might make the bigger impact.

According to a new study, diets lacking omega-3 fatty acids can have negative effects over generations, especially on teens.

A team led by Bita Moghaddam, a professor of neuroscience at Pitt, found second-generation deficiencies of omega-3s caused heightened states of anxiety, hyperactivity and slower learning ability.

The researchers administered a series of behavioral tasks to study the learning, memory, decision making, anxiety and hyperactivity of the omega-3 deficient offspring of rats who were raised with a fatty acid deficiency.

The second-generation rats were compared to a control group without an omega-3 deficiency.

While both sets of rodents seemed to be in good health, the omega-3 deficient rats suffered from a number of behavioral problems.

“The behavior is a little bit less flexible,” Moghaddam said. “There’s increased irrelevant behavior in adolescents, suggesting that this dietary shift is affecting the behavioral health of our young adults and adolescents.”

In the 1960s and '70s, omega-3-deficient additives like corn and soy oil became prevalent in processed food, and farm animals went from grazing grass to eating grain. As a result, many of today’s farm animals contain less fatty acid, according to the study.

“Nutrition influences brain health,” Moghaddam said. “We have known that in the cardiology and cancer field, that what we eat can in fact influence our cardiovascular health and can influence our susceptibility to illnesses like cancer.”

With the brain being 60 to 70 percent fat, omega-3 fatty acids play a crucial role in brain development, according to Moghaddam.

She said people need to start eating natural food in order to regain those fatty acids.

“The minute you start processing food, the minute you start having food that has a stable shelf life — that drastically reduces the omega-3 fats that you can keep in those foods,” Moghaddam said.

The study was published in the journal “Biological Psychiatry” and was funded by grants from the U.S. National Institute of Health and the National Institute on Aging Intramural Research Program.

The Erie, PA native has been a fellow in the WESA news department since May 2013. Having earned a bachelor's degree in print journalism from Duquesne University, he is now pursuing an M.A. in multi-media management. Michael describes his career aspiration as "I want to do it all in journalism."