Sweets Change Our Brain: Why Sweet Foods Are Irresistible

Summary: Consuming high-fat and high-sugar foods causes changes in activity and connectivity in the brain’s dopaminergic system, resulting in a stronger preference for these foods.

Source: Max Planck Institute

Chocolate bars, crisps and fries—why can’t we just ignore them in the supermarket?

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Metabolism Research in Cologne, in collaboration with Yale University, have now shown that foods with a high fat and sugar content change our brain: If we regularly eat even small amounts of them, the brain learns to consume precisely these foods in the future.

The paper is published in the journal Cell Metabolism.

Why do we like unhealthy and fattening foods so much? How does this preference develop in the brain? “Our tendency to eat high-fat and high-sugar foods, the so-called Western diet, could be innate or develop as a result of being overweight. But we think that the brain learns this preference,” explains Sharmili Edwin Thanarajah, lead author of the study.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers gave one group of volunteers a small pudding containing a lot of fat and sugar per day for eight weeks in addition to their normal diet. The other group received a pudding that contained the same number of calories but less fat. The volunteer’s brain activity was measured before and during the eight weeks.

Our brain unconsciously learns to prefer high-fat snacks

The brain’s response to high-fat and high-sugar foods was greatly increased in the group that ate the high-sugar and high-fat pudding after eight weeks. This particularly activated the dopaminergic system, the region in the brain responsible for motivation and reward.

This shows cake
Why do we like unhealthy and fattening foods so much? Image is in the public domain

“Our measurements of brain activity showed that the brain rewires itself through the consumption of chips and co. It subconsciously learns to prefer rewarding food. Through these changes in the brain, we will unconsciously always prefer the foods that contain a lot of fat and sugar,” explains Marc Tittgemeyer, who led the study.

During the study period, the test persons did not gain more weight than the test persons in the control group and their blood values, such as blood sugar or cholesterol, did not change either. However, the researchers assume that the preference for sugary foods will continue after the end of the study.

“New connections are made in the brain, and they don’t dissolve so quickly. After all, the whole point of learning is that once you learn something, you don’t forget it so quickly,” explains Marc Tittgemeyer.

About this diet and neuroscience research news

Author: Press Office
Source: Max Planck Society
Contact: Press Office – Max Planck Society
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Habitual daily intake of a sweet and fatty snack modulates reward processing in humans” by Dana M. Small. Cell Metabolism


Habitual daily intake of a sweet and fatty snack modulates reward processing in humans


  • Daily consumption of a high-fat/high-sugar snack alters reward circuits in humans
  • Preference for low-fat food decreases while brain response to milkshake increases
  • Neural computations that support adaptive associative learning are also enhanced
  • Effects are observed despite no change in body weight or metabolic health


Western diets rich in fat and sugar promote excess calorie intake and weight gain; however, the underlying mechanisms are unclear.

Despite a well-documented association between obesity and altered brain dopamine function, it remains elusive whether these alterations are (1) pre-existing, increasing the individual susceptibility to weight gain, (2) secondary to obesity, or (3) directly attributable to repeated exposure to western diet.

To close this gap, we performed a randomized, controlled study (NCT05574660) with normal-weight participants exposed to a high-fat/high-sugar snack or a low-fat/low-sugar snack for 8 weeks in addition to their regular diet.

The high-fat/high-sugar intervention decreased the preference for low-fat food while increasing brain response to food and associative learning independent of food cues or reward.

These alterations were independent of changes in body weight and metabolic parameters, indicating a direct effect of high-fat, high-sugar foods on neurobehavioral adaptations that may increase the risk for overeating and weight gain.

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.