Many people find it hard to keep their hands off chocolate, potato chips and chips. As a new study shows, fatty and sweet foods strongly activate the reward system in the brain. That’s how the unhealthy preference develops, it says.
“Our tendency to eat foods high in fat and sugar, the so-called Western diet, could be innate or develop due to obesity. However, we think that the brain learns this preference,” says first author Sharmili Edwin Thanarajah of the Max Planck Institute for Metabolic Research in Cologne, explaining the study’s central hypothesis now published in the journal Cell Metabolism.
To test this, the researchers gave one group of normal-weight subjects high-fat, high-sugar pudding twice a day for eight weeks in addition to their normal diet. The other group received a pudding containing the same calories but less fat and sugar. Before and during the eight weeks, the team measured the subjects’ brain activity.
The measurements showed that the pudding, which was high in fat and sugar, activated the subjects’ so-called dopaminergic system particularly strongly. This region in the brain is responsible for motivation and reward. “Our measurements of brain activity have shown that the brain rewires itself through the consumption of chips and co. It subconsciously learns to prefer rewarding food,” said study leader Marc Tittgemeyer. Changes in weight and blood values were not observed in the test subjects, he said.
The researchers expect the learned preference to persist after the study. “New connections are made in the brain, which also do not dissolve so quickly. After all, the whole point of learning is that once you learn something, you don’t forget it so quickly,” Tittgemeyer explained.
The study was conducted in collaboration with researchers from Yale University in New Haven (USA). The team points out that the analysis only provides initial indications but no certainties, partly because of the relatively small number of subjects (57). In addition, the results could be different in underweight or overweight people. The same applies to other snack types and different test duration.
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