Research conducted by scientists at Yale University shows that our brain feels rewarded when we eat a meal that contains both fat and carbohydrates. If we eat them separately, the brain shows less interest in the food.
We have adapted, and we think that food which contains both are denser in energy, so we value these foods more, explains Dana Small, who is the director of Yale University’s Modern Diet and Physiology Research Centre:
“The biological process that regulates the association of foods with their nutritional value evolved to carefully define the value of a food so that organisms can make adaptive decisions.”
The Brain Sees Fats and Carbs as a Reward
Let’s say that a mouse sees some food, but it doesn’t provide energy. It will not risk its life and expose itself to danger for it. Just like mice, when we see food rich in carbs and fats, the brain considers this should be the food we must eat to survive:
“Surprisingly, foods containing fats and carbohydrates appear to signal their potential caloric loads to the brain via distinct mechanisms. Our participants were very accurate at estimating calories from fat and very poor at estimating calories from carbohydrate. Our study shows that when both nutrients are combined, the brain seems to overestimate the energetic value of the food.”
Small led an international team from Germany, Switzerland, and Canada to see the neural responses of the subjects when they presented them with some photos. Participants of the study were shown photos of familiar snacks that contained fat, snacks with sugar and snacks that had fat and carbs. Their brains were scanned as they looked at the photos.
It seems that subjects wanted to pay more for the food that had both fat and carbs. The neural circuits were also lit in the reward center of the brain when the subject saw their favorite food, something sweet, or a large portion of food.
The research can now explain why most of us crave fatty and carby food. But these foods, says the study, are like drugs of abuse:
“One mechanism by which the modern food environment may promote overeating is by combining fat and carbohydrate to potentiate reward and therefore facilitate the transition to habitual responding as is observed in drugs of abuse.”
Small concludes that “processed foods high in fat and carbohydrate like doughnuts, French fries, chocolate bars and potato chips” are rewards for the brain and that it promotes overeating and obesity.
Rex Austinwas born and raised in Thunder Bay Ontario on the shores of Lake Superior. Apart from running his own podcast (Ice Fishing And Other “Cool” Things), he spends his time canoeing and backpacking in Northern Ontario.. As a journalist Rex has published stories for Global News (Thunder Bay) we well as Buzz Feed and Joystiq. As a contributor to Great Lakes Ledger, Rex most covers science and health stories. Contact Rexhere