With Sugar and Fat, Brains -- Not Bellies -- Are In Control

Quick.  Would you pick a creamy milkshake over a Big Mac?  A bag of M&Ms over macaroni and cheese? A red velvet cupcake with gobs of icing over a hotdog loaded with sauerkraut?

If so, you've just proved a new theory.  Sugar wins out over fat every time.

According to Anahad O'Connor at The New York Times, "An intriguing new study suggests that what really draws people to such treats, and prompts them to eat much more than perhaps they know they should, is not the fat that they contain, but primarily the sugar."

She notes that new research tracked brain activity in more than 100 high school students as they drank chocolate-flavored milkshakes that had the same amount of calories but were either high in sugar and low in fat, or vice versa. "While both kinds of shakes lit up pleasure centers in the brain, those that were high in sugar did so far more effectively, firing up a food-reward network that plays a role in compulsive eating," she reports.

What's more, sugar was so powerful a stimulus that it overtook fat, even when the two were combined in large amounts. 

“We do a lot of work on the prevention of obesity, and what is really clear not only from this study but from the broader literature over all is that the more sugar you eat, the more you want to consume it,” O'Connor quotes Eric Stice, the lead author of the study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health Stice, a senior research scientist at the Oregon Research Institute. “As far as the ability to engage brain reward regions and drive compulsive intake, sugar seems to be doing a much better job than fat.”

O'Connor writes that heavily processed foods loaded with fat and sugar stimulate and alter "the same reward regions in the brain that are hijacked by alcohol and drugs of abuse."

Nicole Avena, a faculty member at the New York Obesity Research Center at Columbia University, who was not involved in the new study, tells O'Connor that people “can have all the willpower in the world. But if the brain reward system is being activated in a way that causes them to have a battle against their willpower, then it can be very difficult for them to control their intake.”

So it's our brains not our bellies who are the culprit?  I'll think of that the next time I black out after eating my Grandma's butter-and-sugar laden double-chocolate brownies.  Uh oh, I just did.


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