Approximately 34.2 million Americans suffer from diabetes, a rate experts have attributed to obesity and the high-fat Western diet, but now, new research provides more insight into why Americans tend to eat fattier foods. For decades, a craving for fatty foods was blamed on taste preferences, however, Columbia University researchers found that there might be a connection between your gut and brain that increases a desire for fatty foods.
The study sought to understand how fat consumption interacts with the body and the brain, specifically regarding dietary impulses. The Zuckerman Institute found that when fat enters the intestines it triggers a signal to the brain along neural pathways that increase the body’s craving for fattier foods. Conducted on mice, the Zuckerman Institute examined how fat consumption impacted dietary impulses when presented with unhealthy options, breaking down the myth that cravings are attributed to preferences. By better understanding gut-brain connections, the researchers hope to help tackle rising levels of obesity and diabetes in the United States.
“We live in unprecedented times, in which the overconsumption of fats and sugars is causing an epidemic of obesity and metabolic disorders,” first author Mengtong Li, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of the Zuckerman Institute’s Charles Zuker, Ph.D., said. “If we want to control our insatiable desire for fat, science is showing us that the key conduit driving these cravings is a connection between the gut and the brain.”
This research follows previous work from the Zuker lab regarding sugar and its addictive qualities. Similarly, the research team found that glucose initiates a gut-brain connection that intensifies the mind’s craving for sugar. Published in Nature, this new study compares the desire for sugar to the insatiable craving for fat.
“Our research is showing that the tongue tells our brain what we like, such as things that taste sweet, salty, or fatty,” Dr. Zuker, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics and of neuroscience at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, said. “The gut, however, tells our brain what we want, what we need.”
The Brain is Addicted to Unhealthy Fats
Li decided to conduct this experiment to explore how mice respond to dietary fat including lipids and fatty acids. The mice were fed bottles with dissolved fats and bottles with sweet substances. Although sweet substances were initially attractive, the mice formed a preference for fatty water instead over a couple of days.
This preliminary work intends to explain how dietary preferences can be formed, resulting in unhealthy habits. Examining the nerve associated with gut and brain communication, Li and her team found that a spike in neural activity when consuming fatty foods.
“These interventions verified that each of these biological steps from the gut to the brain is critical for an animal’s response to fat,” Li said. “These experiments also provide novel strategies for changing the brain’s response to fat and possibly behavior toward food.”
This study provides a foundational understanding of how the body reacts to high-fat foods. The research will require several follow-ups as well as human examination, but the data shows how fat consumption can alter the brain’s cravings. Worldwide, obesity rates have nearly doubled since 1980, making this research all the more urgent.
“This exciting study offers insight about the molecules and cells that compel animals to desire fat,” Dr. Scott Sterson, an uninvolved professor of neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, commented. “The capability of researchers to control this desire may eventually lead to treatments that may help combat obesity by reducing consumption of high-calorie fatty foods.”
Eating Plant-Based for Optimal Health
Currently, obesity affects above one-third of Americans, increasing the risks of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic health issues. However, research has shown that plant-based interventions have proven to help offer relief to reduce body fat. By avoiding unhealthy, high-fat foods such as processed meats or cheese, people suffering from obesity could curb the negative effects and lower the risk factors.
“The overconsumption of cheap, highly processed foods rich in sugar and fat is having a devastating impact on human health, especially among people of low income and in communities of color,” Zuker said. “The better we understand how these foods hijack the biological machinery underlying taste and the gut-brain axis, the more opportunity we will have to intervene.”
One recent study found that eating more plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes nuts, seeds, and drinking coffee could help minimize the lifetime risk of developing type two diabetes. About 90 percent of diabetes cases diagnosed are type 2 diabetes – caused by diet, exercise, and lifestyle choices, as opposed to genetically driven.
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