Study of the Day: See Big Mac, Want Big Mac

Preliminary findings by USC researchers suggest that, the more we indulge in sweets, the more we can't live without them.

Study of the DayEriko Sugita/Reuters

PROBLEM: Though previous studies have predictably shown that food advertisements make people think of eating, little research has been done to understand how the brain responds to such visual cues and what feelings they elicit.

METHODOLOGY: University of Southern California researchers led by Kathleen Page used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure the neurological responses of 13 obese, Hispanic women ages 15 to 25 and see if food reminders trigger hunger and cravings. They chose women for their known responsiveness to food cues and Hispanics because of the high risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes in their community.

RESULTS: Viewing images of high-fat food items stimulated the appetite and reward centers in the respondents' brains. Interestingly, taking in glucose and fructose through sweetened drinks while inspecting the pictures also led to a desire for savory foods.

CONCLUSION: Looking at calorie-rich food or consuming sugary drinks prompts people to crave fattening food.

IMPLICATION: The stimulation of the brain's reward areas, especially when we ingest sweets, may lead to overeating and obesity. "[I]n prehistoric days, it behooved us to eat a lot of high-calorie foods because we didn't know when the next meal was coming," Page says. "But now we have much more access to food, and this research indicates added sweeteners might be affecting our desire for it."

SOURCE: The full study, "Fructose Compared to Glucose Ingestion Preferentially Activates Brain Reward Regions in Response to High-Calorie Food Cues in Young, Obese Hispanic Females," was presented during ENDO 2012, the 94th annual meeting of the Endocrine Society.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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