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Is high-fat food addictive?

The Daily Telegraph tells us today “dieting makes people feel depressed because cutting out fatty foods alters their brain”.

The headline is based on Canadian research investigating why and how stopping eating high fat food might lead to cravings for it, and whether this might relate to the effect of a high fat diet on the reward systems in the brain.

They looked at what happens when mice are fed a high fat diet and this is then withdrawn. It found that the mice show increased anxiety-like behaviours and increased motivation to get high-sugar and fat foods. They also show changes in the amounts of certain proteins in the areas of the brain linked with reward sensations. The researchers suggest that these changes may contribute to an “addiction-like” process of repeated relapse to high fat food consumption after a switch to a healthier diet.

Although one of the researchers is quoted in the paper as saying, “the chemicals changed by the diet are associated with depression”, the study did not assess whether the mice showed signs of depression, only anxiety.

This research in mice may give clues as to why sticking to a lower fat diet after a higher fat diet is difficult, but the findings may not be representative of what happens in humans. Much more research is likely to be carried out in understanding the chemical basis for unhealthy food consumption, as being overweight or obese are big health problems in modern society. Hopefully, such research will eventually lead to better ways of supporting people trying to break unhealthy eating habits.

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