We’ve all heard about food addiction. In the past, we have written about how food manufacturers design foods to be as morish as possible with careful balances of salt, fat and sugar. They are made to release dopamine. Once you eat the food, you want more and more of it to get that same dopamine punch.
New research has found more evidence that fat and sugar are addictive. A study found that foods high in fat and sugar alter the brain’s reward centers. The brain reacts with heightened positivity to fat and sugar-rich foods and has little desire for low-fat foods.
“Consuming foods high in fat and sugar on a regular basis can have several negative effects on your health,” said Barbara Kovalenko, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant. “Foods high in saturated and trans fats can contribute to high cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease; whole foods high in sugar can lead to weight gain, tooth decay and an increased risk of developing [blood sugar concerns]… Itʼs important to keep in mind that not all fats and sugars are bad for you, but consuming them in excess can be harmful. A balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods is key for optimal health.”
Research has already shown that diet changes rodent brains. The scientists in this study wanted to see if the same was true for human beings. The study was small, with only 57 people. To control every aspect of the study, they all had roughly the same medical backgrounds and lifestyles, and none were overweight.
The participants were split into two groups. Both were given small containers of pudding to eat along with their normal diet every day for eight weeks. One group had pudding that was high in fat and sugar. The other had pudding that was low in fat and sugar. The puddings had the same number of calories. At the end of the eight weeks, people who ate the fatty, sugary pudding had high activity in the dopaminergic system, the part of the brain responsible for motivation and reward. Their brains showed more excitement when offered a milkshake and when eating it than the control group.
“Our measurements of brain activity showed that the brain rewires itself through the consumption of [fatty, sugary food],” said Marc Tittgemeyer, who led the study at the Max Planck Institute. “It subconsciously learns to prefer rewarding food. Through these changes in the brain, we will unconsciously always prefer the foods that contain a lot of fat and sugar.”
During the study, people who ate the high-fat, high-sugar pudding didn’t gain weight or see changes in their cholesterol or blood sugar. However, it was a relatively short study, and the researchers believe their desire for sugar and fat will continue so they will need to be careful with their food choices as they steer themselves toward healthy options.
“The most important take-home message is that diet alone can rewire brain circuits in such a way that could promote overeating. You can be born with no genetic risk for obesity but then acquire risk by eating foods high in fat and sugar – like processed foods,” said Dr. Tittgemeyer.