Do you ever wonder why it's almost impossible to open a bag of chips and not finish them all? That doesn't just happen to me, right?
Scarfing up treats and overdoing it on snacks could be related to how your brain processes rewards. A reward is something the brain likes, a lot. When a treat or activity or prize is appreciated, the brain does a little happy dance and of course, wants more. The problem is trying to override that urge to snack it up.
In research from scientists at Penn State, children whose brains reacted more vigorously to a food reward than a monetary reward were more likely to overeat, regardless of hunger or weight. Dr. Shana Adise, now at the University of Vermont, led the research at Penn when she was earning her doctorate there. The results of her study could be the way forward in preventing childhood obesity and any later health problems that can go along with it. She explained, "If we can learn more about how the brain responds to food and how that relates to what you eat, maybe we can learn how to change those responses and behavior. This also makes children an interesting population to work with, because if we can stop overeating and obesity at an earlier age, that could be really beneficial."
There have been mixed results in research into how the brain reacts to food. Some studies suggest that if the brain is overly sensitive to reward activity, binge eating is more likely. Other reviews have said the opposite, that overeating could happen when the brain isn't getting rewarded enough by food, so a person continues to eat. The research by Dr. Adise and her team is the first to show that children who have more significant brain responses to food rewards than monetary rewards are more likely to overeat. Dr. Adise explained, "We know very little about the mechanisms that contribute to overeating. The scientific community has developed theories that may explain overeating, but whether or not they actually relate to food intake hadn't yet been evaluated. So we wanted to go into the lab and test whether a greater brain response to anticipating and winning food, compared to money, was related to overeating."
The study cohort included 59 children between the ages of 7 and 11 years old. Each child came to the Children's Eating Behavior Laboratory at Penn four times. In the first three visits, the researchers provided the children with meals and snacks and monitored how much of the food they ate when they were hungry versus when they were not hungry. On the last visit, the children underwent fMRI scans, where they were instructed to play a game. The prize for winning the game varied, it was either a book, a treat or a monetary reward. The children whose brains showed increased activity over the anticipation of a food prize were also the ones more likely to overeat, regardless of hunger or body weight. The study will hopefully show how that brain's response to food could be a way to predict and even prevent obesity.
Kathleen Keller, associate professor of nutritional sciences, Penn State and a co-author on the study explained, "We predicted that kids who had an increased response to food relative to money would be the ones to overeat, and that's what we ended up seeing. We specifically wanted to look at kids whose brains responded to one type of a reward over another. So it wasn't that they're overly sensitive to all rewards, but that they're highly sensitive to food rewards. Until we know the root cause of overeating and other food-related behaviors, it's hard to give good advice on fixing those behaviors. Once patterns take over and you overeat for a long time, it becomes more difficult to break those habits. Ideally, we'd like to prevent them from becoming habits in the first place."
Check out the video included below to learn more about the neuroscience of food and rewards.