We’ve previously shared that processed foods are addictive. Studies show junk food has the exact same impact on the reward system in the brain as any addictive drug, such as cocaine.
The body is designed to ensure survival. So whatever it takes to survive, the body will encourage. One example is the the primal need to seek out food and water. We eat, satisfy our basic needs, and the brain releases those feel-good hormones, like dopamine, in response. Once exposed, and the results enjoyed, the brain is hard wired to seek out more. But unlike healthy foods, today’s junk foods cause a much more powerful reward response than it can get from healthy foods.
It wasn’t completely understood how processed foods impacted our urge to consume them. Some hypothesized it may have been a combination of the textures, flavors, and accessibility. A new study released late March 2023 sheds light on how sugary and fatty snacks impact our bodies.
For the study, researchers at Yale University and the Max Planck Institute for Metabolism Research in Germany gave one group of participants a high-fat, high-sugar yogurt twice daily for eight weeks, while another got a low-fat, low-sugar version. Aside from that, both groups continued their normal eating habits.
Sources share that at the end of the study, the groups rated puddings with varying fat concentrations and apple juices with a range of sugar levels. The group that ate the high-fat, high-sugar yogurt said they did not like low-fat pudding and did not want low-sugar apple juice as much as they had at the start.
Next, the participants underwent MRI scans while drinking milkshakes. The scans showed that the treat increased brain activity in the group that had eaten the high-fat, high-sugar yogurt, but not in the other. The researchers concluded that fatty, sugary snacks activate the brain’s dopamine system, which gives people a feeling of motivation or reward.
The researchers shared that diet has such a strong effect on brain activity that dopamine signals can fire even when someone anticipates eating fatty or sugary food. It’s no wonder that once the idea of a sweet or savory treat crosses our minds, it can be difficult to overcome the cravings. When dopamine levels drop, anxiety, depression and frustration occur. In response, cravings intensify in an attempt to increase dopamine levels again. So, when you feel like you just have to have that snack you’ve been craving, you aren’t crazy. Your body is itself encouraging you to pursue what would increase dopamine levels once again.
This new study isn’t a shock. Previous experiments in rodents, have shown how high fat and high sugar foods can lead to overeating due to impact on dopamine neurons. But up until recently, it was largely unknown if human’s food choices were impacted in the same way. It is becoming clearer, however, that foods that typically fall into the highly processed realm (high fat, high sugar) can impact the body to favor the unhealthy choices. If you follow those cravings, regularly consuming highly processed foods can ultimately lead to higher risk of all-cause mortality, increased risk of dementia, fatty liver disease, and cardiovascular disease, and metabolic syndrome.
The bottom line? We all know the cravings are going to hit sometimes, after all, we are human. Instead of beating ourselves up over making an unhealthy food choice, pick your foods wisely. Try these healthy alternatives. Or, enjoy exactly what you’d like, but limit the portions. And seek other ways to provide your body those feel-good hormones, like exercise and socializing.