Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

What does Junk Food do to Bears?

bear on a river sticking it's tongue out
(Image: Getty Images)

For quite some time we’ve seen science reports on the impact of junk food on human health. Similarly, we’ve seen lots of papers on the impacts of poor sleep on humans. These two vital needs extend far beyond us humans. A recent study on the impacts of junk food on sleep is raising some big questions for some scientists studying free-roaming bears and is giving us another reminder on why we must be careful with how we discard our waste. What does junk food do to bears?  

recently published study is providing more evidence that junk food and a lack of sleep could make things pretty grizzly! Well, Grizzly’s not accurate, after all this is a story about black bears. A team of scientists just studied the diets of 30 female bears roaming free in Colorado and observed the impacts of junk food on their sleep, and ultimately, overall health. 

They said these bears’ diets comprised of up to  30% processed food, primarily from poorly managed trash areas basically. Much like humans, bears too can be impacted by junk food. In this case, these bears were seen hibernating for shorter periods of time. Previous studies about hibernation on mammals show that these seasonal metabolic slowdowns delay the process of aging. 

So, to study their aging, scientists then tested at them at the cellular level. While there are a myriad of factors involved in aging, one way to see it in action is through the loss of  telomeres, the cellular end caps to our DNA. Over time DNA replication causes these telomeres to fall off until they’re unraveled and the cell is dead. The bears that hibernated for shorter periods of time had telomeres that shortened more quickly than other bears. 

This finding is not definitive proof that lack of sleep impacts them at the cellular level. More testing is needed to see if any other variables are involved, but it’s certainly suggestive and requires more long term studies. Other scientists have looked over these findings and agree that after more testing we would be able to narrow down the variables and better know exactly how this relationship between lack of sleep to aging in bears works. They also agree this study is a great start to working towards the answers. 

Regardless, this is a good reminder to us humans that our wastes must be taken seriously because of the immediate and scientifically observable impacts they have on the world around us. Our food waste is an especially big issue considering our continually growing population. More people simply means there will be more waste, so finding a solution here is quite vital. Each year we produce about  2 billion tons of wasted food. That is enough to cover the city of Richmond in a three story high pile of discarded food. 

This story really rings true for us Virginians as well. One of the coolest parts of our state is our amazing  black bear population. These beautiful animals can be found basically all over the state and often share living spaces with us humans. Our diet’s impact on the other animals by way of our trash is something that we can address. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland fisheries has a great resource for folks who live near black bear populated areas. Using  proper food storage methods at parks and making sure your home food wastes are properly secured for your environment are simple ways to personally make sure your output is taken care of. Beyond that finding ways to reduce over all trash output for your home and your community are also great steps in moving towards a cleaner future for our relationship to the world around us. 

For now, more research will continue on this intriguing chain of events from junk food to lack of sleep to aging. Looks like mom was right all along though, too much junk food and not enough sleep, could make things pretty un-bear-able. 

Related Stories