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Mind & Brain

Your brain on carbohydrates and fat? It’s in love

Pizza? Doughnuts? They satisfy the brain's reward center like nothing else.
Roger Federer of Switzerland enjoys some pizza with the ball kids after defeating Novak Djokovic of Serbia in the final during Day Seven of the Davidoff Swiss Indoors Tennis at St Jakobshalle on November 7, 2010 in Basel. (Getty Images)

In a new study, participants were shown images of food containing mostly fat, food containing mostly sugar, and a combination of the two.

Then, they were asked to estimate how many calories and how much they’d pay for it. 

“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,” explainedDana Small, director of the Modern Diet and Physiology Research Center at Yale University.

The kicker? People would also pay more money for the foods containing both fat and carbs. Oh, and it’s very hard to stop eating them once you start. 

The key is in the reward center of the brain; these foods can light that right up, and release dopamine, the hormone that says, “Wow. I love this.” 

With further study, it’s possible for scientists to figure out how to turn off that reward center, at least to a certain extent; as it is now, eating those foods tends to hit the reward center of the brain so much that it’s very hard for us to stop eating when we start. It’s not the same as other foods—in fact, it’s not all that recent that these foods were created, so they calculate that the brain doesn’t really know how to handle them. Before those foods were invented, humans didn’t have these kinds of options nearly as much as we do today. 

The study also discovered that the brain can handle either carbs or fat, but not both at the same time; when presented with such an option, it doesn’t know quite how to respond. 

So… bring on the donuts? 


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