Uncovering the Hidden Mechanisms of Why Ultra-Processed Foods Are So Rewarding

Summary: Study aims to assess why highly-processed foods are so rewarding to the brain and why they are so over-consumed as part of the Western diet.

Source: Virginia Tech

Scientists at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC are looking to uncover the “why” of the American diet. Why are people drawn to ultra-processed foods, which have been linked to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, different types of cancer, and increased risk of heart disease and death?

It’s a critical question because ultra-processed foods make up about 58 percent of calories consumed in the United States. These foods have been through multiple manufacturing processes and contain many added ingredients. Examples include sweetened cereals, hot dogs, chips, and soft drinks.

“We have seen an explosion of these foods in our environment since the 1980s,” said Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, an assistant professor with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and associate director of the institute’s Center for Health Behaviors Research. 

With support from a $2.2 million grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, her lab is recruiting participants for a study that will combine metabolic, neural, and behavioral measures with statistical modeling to uncover what drives people to reach for ultra-processed foods. 

“We want to understand what it is in particular about these foods that leads to changes in body, brain, and behavior,” said DiFeliceantonio, who also holds an appointment in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “What are the underlying variables we have not thought about yet?”

This shows potato chips
These foods have been through multiple manufacturing processes and contain many added ingredients. Examples include sweetened cereals, hot dogs, chips, and soft drinks. Image is in the public domain

The study will focus on the way the body processes different foods, taking into account features of the food itself. The goal is to identify specific properties of ultra-processed foods that support their consumption, the physiological and neurobiological mechanisms they exploit in the brain, and the individual factors that make people susceptible to overconsumption.

DiFeliceantonio said a better understanding of why these foods are so rewarding and overconsumed will lead to better strategies to improve health. The findings could provide evidence needed for changing dietary guidelines, with the goal of reducing diet-related mortality and disease.

“I see it as my job as a scientist to provide that information so people can make informed decisions about feeding themselves, and feeding their families, in a healthy way,” DiFeliceantonio said.

About this diet research news

Author: John Pastor
Source: Virginia Tech
Contact: John Pastor – Virginia Tech
Image: The image is in the public domain

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  1. I think the combination of ultra-refined carbohydrates with seed oils and a whole bunch of chemical preservatives makes for foods that are highly addictive, even more so than many drugs!

  2. Fascinating read! 🧠 This research sheds light on the neural mechanisms underlying our strong affinity for ultra-processed foods, which have become such a prevalent part of the Western diet. Understanding the rewarding properties of these foods on the brain could potentially pave the way for more effective strategies to promote healthier eating habits and combat obesity. It’s crucial that we continue to delve deeper into these mechanisms and their implications on public health, as well as raise awareness about the potential consequences of overconsumption. Kudos to the researchers for their work on this critical topic! 👏🔬 #Neuroscience #ProcessedFoods #HealthyEating

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