New research suggests that your food preferences may affect your brain circuitry resulting in a greater fat intake and total calorie intake with an increased risk of obesity. In this article, we dive deep into the science behind how high-fat diets affect the brain's reward system and how it impacts regulating our food choices.


High Fat Diet Key Influences Brain Circuitry Key Points

  • Eating a high-sugar/high fat diet for 8 weeks increased the preference for high-fat/high-sugar meals.
  • The study found that the high-fat/high-sugar shake decreased the preference for low fat food while increasing the brain’s response to food and associative learning, independent of food cues or rewards.
  • The results also emphasize the importance of adopting a balanced diet and limiting the intake of high-fat, high-sugar foods to maintain optimal brain health and prevent overeating.

Do you constantly crave high fat /high sugar, high-calorie foods? Like many people, you may think you have low willpower, but it might be more than just a lack of will. New research suggests that your food preferences may affect your brain circuitry resulting in a greater fat intake and total calorie intake with an increased risk of obesity. In this article, we dive deep into the science behind how high-fat diets affect the brain’s reward system and how it impacts regulating our food choices.

Why Do People Crave High-Fat/High Sugar Foods

In today’s society, high-fat/high-sugar/carb diets have become increasingly prevalent. These diets can significantly affect our nutrition, weight loss, and overall health. Previous experiences and cravings often influence our food intake. In particular, studies have shown that high-fat/high-sugar food choices while dieting can significantly impact our future food choices. This is because consuming these foods can affect the brain’s reward system, leading to changes in dopamine production and sensitivity. Sugars that contain glucose, such as sucrose, are generally preferred to artificial sweeteners owing to their post-ingestive rewarding effect, which elevates dopamine release. (Domingos et al., 2013)

The Role of High Fat/High Sugar Diets in the Development of Inflammation and Obesity

If you want to reduce calories, it does not matter whether the calories come from low-carb or low-fat. The beneficial effects on weight are due to the reduced number of calories. For example, studies have shown that low-fat and low-carbohydrate diets improve weight loss outcomes when total calories are similar. (Hall et al., 2021)

It’s key to maintain a high protein diet thru protein-rich sources such as dairy products, poultry, lean beef, and eggs. Protein supplementation can also be beneficial for meeting protein requirements while dieting.

The combination of both high dietary fat/high sugar diets results in caloric intake that can contribute to a higher percentage of body fat and a higher risk of becoming overweight. This can also contribute to metabolic syndrome, a cluster of risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. These risk factors include obesity, hypertension, high triglycerides, fatty acids, LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, and elevated fasting blood sugar levels. (Koopman et al., 2014) These metabolic disturbances can increase the risk of inflammation and cardiovascular disease and make weight management and fat loss more challenging.

High fat diet
Brain reward
High sugar diet
High fat high sugar diet
High sugar high fat diet
Evidence based muscle
Sugars that contain glucose, such as sucrose, are generally preferred to artificial sweeteners owing to their post-ingestive rewarding effect, which elevates dopamine release. (Domingos et al., 2013)

Studies on High Fat

Studies have shown that individuals who consume a diet high in unhealthy fats, sugars, and excess energy intake from calories are more likely to develop metabolic syndrome, increasing the risk of chronic diseases. (Castro-Barquero et al., 2020) By adopting a healthier diet, fat content, and sugar, individuals can lower their risk of developing metabolic syndrome and improve overall health.

When consuming a high-fat/high-sugar diet, the body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, which is used for energy. However, when glucose levels are too high, the body stores the excess glucose as glycogen in the liver and muscles. If glycogen stores become full, the body will convert excess glucose into fatty acids and keep them as body fat. This process can lead to weight gain and obesity.

A recent study aimed to estimate how energy density, hyper-palatability, protein content, and eating rate affected ad libitum energy intake of 2,733 meals across four dietary patterns. The study showed that increasing the energy density of meals, consuming food faster, and consuming hyper-palatable foods led to increased energy intake, which can contribute to weight gain and obesity.(Fazzino et al., 2023)

The findings of this study can help inform dietary recommendations and strategies for weight management by highlighting the importance of considering factors such as energy density, eating rate, and the palatability of food when designing meals and diets.

Brain Circuitry, Food Preferences, and the Reward System

Both food consumption and drug use are driven by their rewarding properties, which have been linked to increases in dopaminergic activity in brain reward circuits, but they do this differently. (Nora D. Volkow & Charles P. O’Brien 2007) Research emphasizes that stress can alter food preferences (i.e., the desire to consume more high-fat and sugar foods) and can affect the brain circuitry and the reward centers of the brain. (Yang et al., 2022) Hyper-palatable foods such as ice cream and sweets, such as those high in fat and sugar, elicit a reward response. (Adam & Epel, 2007)

Laboratory and smaller epidemiological studies have reported stress-associated food preferences for foods high in sugar and fat; associations have been found more consistently among women and the obese. The greater fat content of a diet has been shown to affect total energy intake, and a high-fat diet can lead to an increase in the percentage of daily calories coming from fat. (Barrington et al., 2014)

The High Fat Diet Reward System

The reward system involves dopamine release and is essential to the brain’s survival mechanism. It helps to reinforce behaviors that promote survival, such as eating. However, consuming high-fat/high-sugar foods can hijack the reward system, leading to overconsumption and obesity. (Edwin Thanarajah et al., 2023)

Dr. Anne-Kathrin Eiselt’s research focuses on the consumption brain circuit, closely linked to the brain’s reward centers. The reward system is a complex network of brain regions responsible for reinforcing behaviors beneficial for survival, such as finding and consuming food. (Eiselt et al., 2021) When we consume hyper-palatable foods, the brain releases neurotransmitters like dopamine, which signal pleasure and reinforce the desire to continue eating these foods.

However, consuming high-fat/high-sugar foods can lead to an overstimulation of the reward system, causing it to become less sensitive to the natural rewarding properties of food. This desensitization can increase the need for more high-fat/high-sugar foods to achieve the same level of pleasure and satisfaction, ultimately promoting overconsumption.

High fat diet
Brain reward
High sugar diet
High fat high sugar diet
High sugar high fat diet
Evidence based muscle

How High Fat/High Sugar Diets Change Food Preferences for Low-Fat Foods

Research has shown that this increased dopamine release from high-fat/sugar foods can change brain preferences. For example, a study published in the Journal of Nature Neuroscience found that rats fed a high-fat diet had a reduced sensitivity to dopamine, which decreased their motivation to seek out and consume high-fat foods. (Johnson & Kenny, 2010) This suggests that overconsumption of high-fat foods can reduce the brain’s response to dopamine, resulting in a preference for even higher levels of fat and sugar to achieve the same reward level.

The Study

A recent study titled “Habitual daily intake of a sweet and fatty snack modulates reward processing in humans” found that, like animal studies, regularly consuming high-fat, high-sugar snacks influence the brain’s reward processing system. This groundbreaking research explored how the brain’s reward processing system adapts to the daily consumption of sweet and fatty snacks and the potential consequences of these adaptations.

The study was a randomized, controlled trial conducted with normal-weight participants. The participants were exposed to either a high-fat/high-sugar snack or a low-fat/low-sugar snack for eight weeks in addition to their regular diet. This design allowed researchers to isolate the effects of high-fat and high-sugar snack consumption on the brain’s reward processing system.

Results

The study revealed that the high-fat/high-sugar snack decreased the preference for low-fat food. Interestingly, these alterations were independent of changes in body weight and metabolic parameters, suggesting a direct effect of high-fat, high-sugar foods on neurobehavioral adaptations that may increase the risk of overeating.(Edwin Thanarajah et al., 2023)

The findings of this study have significant implications for public health and nutrition. They provide evidence that the habitual daily intake of sweet and fatty snacks can lead to neurobehavioral changes that may increase the risk of overeating and developing obesity. The results also emphasize the importance of adopting a balanced diet and limiting the intake of high-fat, high-sugar foods to maintain optimal brain health and prevent overeating.

High fat diet
Brain reward
High sugar diet
High fat high sugar diet
High sugar high fat diet
Evidence based muscle The study revealed that the high-fat/high-sugar snack decreased the preference for low-fat food.

Strategies for Reducing High Fat/High Sugar Diets and Promoting Healthy Eating Habits

Given the potential risks associated with high-fat/high-sugar diets, it is essential to promote healthier eating habits. Here are some strategies to help reduce the consumption of high-fat and high-sugar foods and encourage a more balanced diet:

  • Focus on whole, unprocessed foods: Prioritize the consumption of whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. These foods are nutrient-dense and can help maintain optimal health and weight.
  • Choose healthier fats: Replace saturated and trans fats, found in processed and fried foods, with healthier fat options such as olive oil, avocados, and nut butter. Consuming unsaturated fats can provide health benefits, such as reducing inflammation and improving blood pressure.
  • Control portion sizes: Be mindful of portion sizes when eating high-fat and high-sugar foods. Consuming smaller portions can help manage your total calorie intake and reduce the risk of overeating.
  • Eat mindfully: Practice mindful eating by paying attention to your hunger and satiety cues. Eating slowly and savoring each bite can help prevent overeating and promote a healthier relationship with food.
  • Stay active: Engaging in regular physical activity can help maintain a healthy weight and promote overall wellness. Exercise can also improve mood and reduce stress, which can be helpful in managing emotional eating.

Q and A:

Which type of food is best for me to eat on a high fat diet?

When following a high-fat diet, it’s best to focus on consuming healthy fats like those found in nuts, seeds, avocados, fatty fish, and olive oil. These foods can provide numerous health benefits and help maintain optimal health and weight.

 

References

Adam, T. C., & Epel, E. S. (2007). Stress, eating and the reward system. Physiol Behav, 91(4), 449-458. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2007.04.011

Barrington, W. E., Beresford, S. A., McGregor, B. A., & White, E. (2014). Perceived stress and eating behaviors by sex, obesity status, and stress vulnerability: findings from the vitamins and lifestyle (VITAL) study. J Acad Nutr Diet, 114(11), 1791-1799. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2014.03.015

Castro-Barquero, S., Ruiz-León, A. M., Sierra-Pérez, M., Estruch, R., & Casas, R. (2020). Dietary Strategies for Metabolic Syndrome: A Comprehensive Review. Nutrients, 12(10), 2983. https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/12/10/2983

Domingos, A. I., Sordillo, A., Dietrich, M. O., Liu, Z.-W., Tellez, L. A., Vaynshteyn, J., Ferreira, J. G., Ekstrand, M. I., Horvath, T. L., de Araujo, I. E., & Friedman, J. M. (2013). Hypothalamic melanin concentrating hormone neurons communicate the nutrient value of sugar. Elife, 2, e01462. https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.01462

Edwin Thanarajah, S., DiFeliceantonio, A. G., Albus, K., Kuzmanovic, B., Rigoux, L., Iglesias, S., Hanßen, R., Schlamann, M., Cornely, O. A., Brüning, J. C., Tittgemeyer, M., & Small, D. M. (2023). Habitual daily intake of a sweet and fatty snack modulates reward processing in humans. Cell Metabolism, 35(4), 571-584.e576. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cmet.2023.02.015

References

Eiselt, A. K., Chen, S., Chen, J., Arnold, J., Kim, T., Pachitariu, M., & Sternson, S. M. (2021). Hunger or thirst state uncertainty is resolved by outcome evaluation in medial prefrontal cortex to guide decision-making. Nat Neurosci, 24(7), 907-912. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41593-021-00850-4

Fazzino, T. L., Courville, A. B., Guo, J., & Hall, K. D. (2023). Ad libitum meal energy intake is positively influenced by energy density, eating rate and hyper-palatable food across four dietary patterns. Nature Food, 4(2), 144-147. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-022-00688-4

Hall, K. D., Guo, J., Courville, A. B., Boring, J., Brychta, R., Chen, K. Y., Darcey, V., Forde, C. G., Gharib, A. M., Gallagher, I., Howard, R., Joseph, P. V., Milley, L., Ouwerkerk, R., Raisinger, K., Rozga, I., Schick, A., Stagliano, M., Torres, S., . . . Chung, S. T. (2021). Effect of a plant-based, low-fat diet versus an animal-based, ketogenic diet on ad libitum energy intake. Nat Med, 27(2), 344-353. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-020-01209-1

Johnson, P. M., & Kenny, P. J. (2010). Dopamine D2 receptors in addiction-like reward dysfunction and compulsive eating in obese rats. Nature Neuroscience, 13(5), 635-641. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.2519

Koopman, K. E., Caan, M. W. A., Nederveen, A. J., Pels, A., Ackermans, M. T., Fliers, E., la Fleur, S. E., & Serlie, M. J. (2014). Hypercaloric diets with increased meal frequency, but not meal size, increase intrahepatic triglycerides: A randomized controlled trial. Hepatology, 60(2), 545-553. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1002/hep.27149

Nora D. Volkow , M. D., & Charles P. O’Brien , M. D., PH.D. ,. (2007). Issues for DSM-V: Should Obesity Be Included as a Brain Disorder? American Journal of Psychiatry, 164(5), 708-710. https://doi.org/10.1176/ajp.2007.164.5.708

Yang, F., Li, R., Ren, X., Cao, B., & Gao, X. (2022). Association Between Perceived Levels of Stress and Self-Reported Food Preferences Among Males and Females: A Stated Preference Approach Based on the China Health and Nutrition Survey [Original Research]. Frontiers in Public Health, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2022.850411

About The Author

%d bloggers like this: