Tag Archives: junk food

Western junk-food diet can slow down your brain and make you eat even more junk

Switching from a healthy diet to a western diet (high fat, high added sugar) for a little as one week can significantly impair cognitive function and encourage people to eat more even when they’re full.

Disruption in the hippocampus, a region that is known to have a major role in learning and memory, seems to be the likely cause.

Credit: Pixabay.

It’s not the first time something like this has been suggested. Research in the past found that when animals are fed a Western-style diet (rich in saturated fat and added sugar), they show impairment in memory and learning tests. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the same conclusion applies to humans and that hippocampal lesions can deregulate a person’s appetite.

Psychologists at Macquarie University in Sydney wanted to put this to the test and enlisted 110 young, lean students, aged 20 to 23, who generally ate a healthy diet.

Half of the students were randomly assigned to a junk food diet for an entire week, while the other half carried on with their normal diet.

The participants in the Western-style diet group had to have a breakfast of a toasted sandwich and a milkshake, high in saturated fat and added sugar, or Belgian waffles, as well as one main meal and a dessert from a popular fast-food chain. Bearing these changes aside, the students were asked to otherwise maintain their normal diet and lifestyle.

At the end of the study, the researchers found that those on the Western-style diet had an appetite for palatable food such as snacks and chocolate even when they were full. They also scored worse on memory tests.

“When we see cake, chocolate or crisps, for example, we remember how nice they are to eat.  When we are full the hippocampus normally supresses these memories, reducing our desire to eat.  We found that lean healthy young people exposed to one week of a junk food diet developed impaired hippocampal function and relatively greater desire to eat junk food when full.  Junk food may then act to undermine self-control by increasing desire,” the researchers stated in a press release.

These results seem to indicate that junk food might cause disruption in the hippocampus, impairing memory and making it harder to resist the temptation to eat even more junk food, which in turn generates more damage to the hippocampus and triggers a vicious cycle of overeating. The more people craved for palatable food when full, the more impaired their hippocampal function was, judging from memory tests.

“More broadly, this experiment, alongside those from the other animal and human studies cited here, suggests that a WS-diet causes neurocognitive impairments following short-term exposure,” the authors concluded.

Western-style diets, characterized by foods high in sugar, salt, and fat, as well as protein from red meat (i.e. burgers, processed meat, ready meals, fries, etc), have been previously associated with the development of obesity-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure.

The authors of the new study, which was published in Royal Society Open Science, think that there will come a time when authorities will be pressured to impose restrictions on processed food, similarly to how some policies in place today deter smoking and drinking alcohol.

Another study published last month showed how sugar can trigger changes in the brain similarly to an addiction. After just 12 days of being on a high sugar diet, participants suffered major changes in the brain’s dopamine and opioid systems.

How a simple trick could inoculate adolescents against junk food advertising

Want your kids to eat less of this? Use their rebellious attitudes.

A large part of the junk food industry advertising is targeted at teenagers and kids. Teenagers are exposed to a large volume of advertising, which produces a positive image of junk food and encourages them to eat more than they should. However, researchers propose a way to tackle that: by taking advantage of the teens’ tendency to rebel against authority.

“Food marketing is deliberately designed to create positive emotional associations with junk food, to connect it with feelings of happiness and fun,” said lead author Christopher J. Bryan, from the University of Texas at Austin. “One of the most exciting things is that we got kids to have a more negative immediate gut reaction to junk food and junk food marketing, and a more positive immediate gut reaction to healthy foods,” said Bryan.

Stick it to the man

The study was carried out in two stages. For the preliminary stages, the team went into classrooms and had one group of pupils exposed to a fact-based exposé-style article about big food companies. The idea was to show children how these companies use marketing and manipulation to hook consumers to junk food for their own financial gain. The article also focused on how advertising often targets vulnerable populations, like the very young and the very poor.

Meanwhile, the control group received traditional materials about the benefits of healthy eating and the downsides of junk food. The researchers then followed the foods the teens ate the next day.

The group that read the exposé had fewer junk food snacks and was more likely to drink water over sugary sodas. This seems to support the idea that taking advantage of the teens’ rebellion tendencies can work in this context — showing them how companies are trying to manipulate them can trigger the “stick it to the man” impulse.

Long-term benefits

In the new study, released today, researchers took it one step further: teens first read the marketing exposé, and then carried out an activity designed to reinforce the negative portrayal of misleading food marketing. The students were given images of food advertising on iPads and were told to “vandalize” them — write over them or draw in graffiti-style — and turn them from misleading to true.

The kids were then followed for three months and their dietary decisions analyzed. Those who were part of the drawing group significantly reduced consumption of junk food — particularly boys, whose consumption of unhealthy foods in the cafeteria dropped by 31% compared to the control group. The reduction in girls’ consumption was less clear.

“One of the most exciting things is that we got kids to have a more negative immediate gut reaction to junk food and junk food marketing, and a more positive immediate gut reaction to healthy foods,” said Bryan.

The unusual approach seems to be very efficient, much more effective than conventional approaches, researchers emphasize.

“Most past interventions seemed to assume that alerting teenagers to the negative long-term health consequences of bad diets would be an effective way to motivate them to change their behavior,” said Bryan. “That’s clearly a problematic assumption. We thought it could be the main reason why no one has been able to get teenagers to change their eating habits in a lasting way.”

Fighting childhood obesity

Childhood obesity has risen dramatically in recent years, with almost 1 in 3 children in the US being overweight or obese. In other parts of the world, childhood obesity has also risen dramatically — by 1000% in the past four decades. Enabling teenagers to make healthier food decisions and be more aware of the consequences of their diets is a crucial step towards fighting those trends, but so far, methods of successfully achieving this have been few and far between. This is where innovative approaches, such as the one in this study, could make a difference.

“Adolescence is a developmental stage when even the lengthiest health promotion approaches have had virtually no effect. Because so many social problems, from education to risky behavior, have their roots in the teen years, this study paves the way for solutions to some of the thorniest challenges for promoting global public health.”

“Food marketing is deliberately designed to create positive emotional associations with junk food, to connect it with feelings of happiness and fun,” said Bryan. “What we’ve done is turn that around on the food marketers by exposing this manipulation to teenagers, triggering their natural strong aversion to being controlled by adults. If we could make more kids aware of that, it might make a real difference.”

The study has been published in Nature Human Behavior.

Credit: Pixabay.

Why drinking alcohol gives you the munchies

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Closing time at the bars usually sends scores of intoxicated men and women to the nearest diner or fast-food restaurant. In a new study, researchers at the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine investigated what makes alcohol and high-fat junk food go so well together, finding that this union seems to be mediated by a shared brain circuit in the brain.

“Obesity and alcoholism, two of the most common chronic disorders in the United States, may be behaviorally linked as binge intake of palatable diets, such as diets high in fat, and binge alcohol intake may utilize the same neurocircuitry,” the researchers wrote.

The new findings agree with previous studies which found that alcohol consumption affects the same areas of the brain that control overeating.

For their study, the researchers experimented with three groups of adult male mice, each with different eating and drinking patterns. One group had unlimited access to a high-fat diet and had limited access to drinking water mixed with alcohol; the second group ate normal rodent food and had limited access to the same kind of alcoholic beverage as the first group; the third group had limited access to both high-fat foot and alcohol beverage. Over the course of eight weeks, the ratio of alcohol to drinking water was incrementally increased from 10% to 20%. Throughout the trial, all the animals were offered access to drinking water.

Animals in the third group, also known as the “binge diet”, had a weight-gain and weight-loss cycle associated with binge eating and drank more alcohol than water during their access period. The other groups consumed less alcohol than the binge diet group.

The results suggest that limited access to high-fat food promotes binge-like eating patterns, which also primes the brain for more alcohol consumption.

“Given the increasing rates of binge drinking and overall obesity rates in the U.S. in recent years, we think this new mouse model will be of critical importance in the near future,” wrote Caitlin Coker, MS, first author of the study which was presented at the American Physiological Society’s (APS) annual meeting at Experimental Biology 2019 in Orlando, Fla.

This wasn’t the first time that scientists have identified a link between alcohol consumption and eating behavior. Alcohol adds calories to your daily intake without offering much nutritive value in return. However, instead of filling you up and making you eat less, alcohol seems to have the opposite effect. For instance, one study identified the so-called apéritif effect, whereby consuming an alcoholic beverage (with 20 g of alcohol) before lunch led to an 11% increase in total food intake during the meal, and a 24% increase in high-fat savory foods.

Too much alcohol can lead to health problems, including being overweight. However, light to moderate alcohol intake can be healthy since its rich antioxidant content can offer protection against heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and more.

junk food

Junk food could be taxed like cigarettes or alcohol, researchers find

junk food

Credit: Pixabay.

Researchers found that a tax on junk food is both legally and administratively feasible at the federal level in the United States. Proponents of such a tax claim it will help curb obesity in the country which is now peaking at alarming levels, essentially becoming a public health hazard.

“Economic and social environments can influence food choice in beneficial and harmful directions. Our finding that a federal manufacturer excise junk food tax — defined through product category or combined category-nutrient approaches — appears to be legally and administratively feasible and has strong implications for nutrition policy,” said Jennifer L. Pomeranz,  who is an assistant professor of public health policy and management at NYU College of Global Public Health.

According to the CDC, 36.5 percent of American adults and roughly 20 percent of children ages 6 to 19 are obese. What’s more, over 70 percent of all men and 60 percent of all women from the US are overweight. This makes a huge fraction of the country’s population at risk of developing cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and chronic kidney disease. And to be fair, this is no longer an American problem. A third of the world’s population —  over two billion people — is now either overweight or obese.

Given the public health risks, many experts believe we ought to enact policies that improve American diets. One course of action would be to regulate the price of food and beverage to incite consumers to make healthier choices, either through taxing unhealthy foods or offering subsidies for healthier foods.

A legally feasible tax

Researchers at New York University and the Friedman School at Tufts University investigated the feasibility of implementing a national soda or junk food tax. A federal-level tax, rather than state-by-state, is preferred because the effects are broader and you avoid seeing things like consumers traveling from state to state to fill groceries and dine at restaurants where they can escape the tax. On the other hand, the United States is not heterogeneous in its citizens’ attitude towards junk food or healthy eating, which will make a nation-wide tax challenging to implement.

The team examined the present scientific literature to identify which products should be targeted for junk food taxes but also looked elsewhere where similar legislation was passed. There are eight countries in the world who have implemented some kind of food and beverage taxation specifically aimed at curbing obesity.

Kerala, a state on India’s tropical Malabar Coast, imposed a 14.5 percent tax on the consumption of fast food. In 2014, France introduced a tax on sugary drinks that made a noticeable dent in the sales. And in the United States, some municipalities have taken matters into their hands. The city of Berkeley, for instance, introduced a one penny-per-ounce tax on all sugar-sweetened beverages sold in the city. Five months after its implementation, lower-income residents had reduced their consumption of these items by 21 percent compared to pre-tax levels.

Researchers identified four ways of classifying foods:

  • by product category (such as soda or candy),
  • broad nutrient criteria,
  • specific nutrients or calories,
  • or a combination.

The most frequently targeted categories were sugar-sweetened beverages, candy, processed meat products, and sweet and salty snacks, and the most frequently targeted foods were sugar, calories, and salt.

Next, the researchers looked at the various federal taxing mechanisms that would be the most administratively feasible. For instance, there are two main types of tax: sales or excise. Excise taxes are charged on the manufacture, distribution, or sale of commodities, and it’s up to the taxed entity to determine the extent to which it will pass on the tax to consumers. Sales taxes are paid directly by consumers and collected by sellers.

Other countries where there’s a junk food tax overwhelmingly use an excise tax mechanism, similar to the kind you see for alcohol and tobacco.

“One advantage of a manufacturer excise tax is that food companies may be incentivized to reformulate their products if nutrition criteria are incorporated into the tax,” Pomeranz said.

Ultimately, from a legal and administrative perspective, the team concluded that a federal junk food tax is feasible. Existing bills and laws support defining junk food through product-specific categories, and add a graduated taxation strategy where the tax increases as the nutritional quality of the food decreases. From an administrative perspective, current taxing mechanisms support the viability of a junk food excise tax paid by manufacturers, the researchers reported in the American Journal of Public Health. So, the ball is now in the court of policymakers who have the, admittedly, challenging and unpopular job of taxing junk food and soda.



New York mice are actively evolving into a new species: city mice

New York city rats show early signs of speciating away from their rural peers, a new paper reports. The main cause is likely greater food availability and different nutritional make-up.


Image via Pixabay.

Stephen Harris, a PhD graduate at the State University of New York who will join the biology faculty in 2018 and Jason Munshi-South, associate professor of biological sciences at the Fordham University in New York City, say there’s nothing quite like a New York City mouse.

The duo captured 48 white-footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus) from three parks across the city and in three in nearby rural areas to see if they can find any signs of biological adaptation to city life. White-footed mice are native to this area of North America, so the team looked at more subtle changes, in particular, differences in gene expression. RNA analysis revealed that the urban mice show 19 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), areas in the genome where a single nucleotide (letter) is different between two individual or groups.

Several of the SNPs were located in genes tied to digestion and border metabolic processes. One of these is involved in the synthesis of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and is a version of a gene humans seem to have selected as we were transitioning from hunter-gatherers to agriculture.

Cheeseburger hypothesis

The team also notes finding genes tied to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which they say can be indicative of the mice eating a lot of fatty acids — which fast food has in abundance. The mice also displayed larger livers with more scar tissue.

“The first thing that we thought of was the ‘cheeseburger hypothesis’: urban mice subsidizing their diet on human food waste,” says Harris.

Besides junk food and waste food, city mice can also get their paws on other tasty treats, like seeds, nuts, or berries growing in parks. These sources are also more plentiful than in rural areas, where higher inter-species competition limits their access to food. So the most likely thing happening here, Richardson says, is that the mice rely on a mix of urban foodstuffs, and occasionally dine on human food waste for a calorie boost.

The work is part of a wave of studies investigating examples of rapid adaptation, showcasing evolution in the works. However, the authors caution that their sample size was too small to draw any definitive conclusions at this point in time, so future studies will be needed to confirm or the results.

The paper “Signatures of positive selection and local adaptation to urbanization in white-footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus)” has been published on the preprint server bioRxiv.

kids junk food ads

Teens are convinced to forgo junk food in favor of healthy eating if this means ‘sticking it to the man’

kids junk food ads

Credit: Yale.edu

It’s no secret teens are often at odds with perceived injustice and excessive authority. This struggling energy could be used in their favor by channeling it towards making healthier dietary choices, U.S. researchers say. Their study suggests social conscience and a strong urge for autonomy can reshape the perception of healthy eating.

“Our goal here was to portray healthy eating as a way to take a stand against injustice – to stand up for vulnerable people who lack the ability to protect themselves,” the authors wrote in their paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business the University of Texas enrolled eight graders for their study and exposed them to various journalistic accounts of manipulative food industry marketing practices. These include things like engineering food to make it more addictive, deceptive labeling that makes junk food look healthy or selectively targeting the poor and young children. Indeed, these journalistic investigations are backed by science as we’ve previously reported most foods ads on children’s websites market junk food and the same can be seen across other media channels as well.

Essentially, the researchers framed eating healthy as a way to ‘stick it to the man’, and by all accounts, it seemed to work.

The test subjects chose fewer junk food options as snacks and preferred water over sugary sodas. The teens made the choices outside the context of the nutrition talk when they were unaware their choices were being tracked.

According to the study’s results, the teens showed a 7 percentile increase in the rate at which they chose to forgo sugary drinks in favor of water and an 11 percentage point  increase in the rate at which they chose something healthy like fruit or carrots instead of unhealthy snacks like chips or cookies. This behaviour was observed outside sessions about nutrition when the teens were unaware their dietary choices were being tracked.

[panel style=”panel-danger” title=”The state of junk food marketing in the U.S.” footer=”“Fast Food FACTS 2013″ report authored by Yale University. “]In 2013, researchers from Yale found the fast food industry spent $4.6 billion to advertise mostly unhealthy products. Children and teens were the focus on many such campaigns.

Key findings include:

  • Children ages 6 to 11 saw 10% fewer TV ads for fast food, but children and teens continued to see three to five fast food ads on TV every day;
  • Healthier kids’ meals were advertised by a few restaurants, but they represent only one-quarter of fast-food ads viewed by children;
  • Less than 1% of kids’ meals combinations at restaurants meet nutrition standards recommended by experts, and just 3% meet the industry’s own Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative and Kids LiveWell nutrition standards;
  • Spanish-language advertising to Hispanic preschoolers, a population at high risk for obesity, increased by 16%;
  • Fast food marketing via social media, where most kids linger nowadays, have seen their budgets skyrocket.


Just so you get an idea, a 7 percent points reduction in carbohydrate uptake means losing one pound of body fat (or not gaining for those not overweight) roughly every 6 weeks for boys and every 8 weeks for girls.

“This approach provides an immediate, symbolic benefit for resisting temptation: feeling like a high-status and respect-worthy person right now because one is acting in accordance with important values shared with one’s peers,” said Christopher J. Bryan of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in a statement.


About a quarter of commercial television advertisements are for food.

Obese teens are much more susceptible to junk food commercials, brain scans reveal

It’s no secret that  TV food commercials stimulate pleasure and reward centers in the brain, after all advertisers wouldn’t pay big money for them to air if they didn’t entice people to order more. In fact, food advertising has increased dramatically over the past 30 years. Teenagers are exposed on average to 13 food commercials on any given day. At the same time, childhood and adolescent obesity in the US has been on the rise fast and worrisome, so we can’t help but notice the connection. Now, researchers at Dartmouth found overweight teens are disproportionately affected by TV food commercials, as key brain regions that control pleasure, taste and – most surprisingly – the mouth are all much more stimulated than those teens with less body fat. The findings are important since they suggest overweight teens exposed to this kind of environment will experience further difficulties when they try to lose weight. A further insight is that dietary plans should also target subsequent thinking concerning eating food, not just the temptation.

About a quarter of commercial television advertisements are for food.

About a quarter of commercial television advertisements are for food.

The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2012. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5% to nearly 21% over the same period, according to the CDC. Previously, ZME Science reported a number of studies related to TV advertisement, food and obesity in children and adolescents. For instance, one study found that the main reason people tend to overeat might be the response to a Pavlovian conditional reflex (McDonalds logos prompting people to immediately feel “hungry”). What’s worrisome are also the sly tactics employed by the industry, like marketing foods endorsed by athletes, despite over 90% of these brands are actually junk food. Long story short, exposure to food marketing promotes eating habits that contribute to obesity, children most vulnerable of all. What’s despicable however is that it all sounds more and more each day like an addiction problem, instead of a dietary choice.

The Dartmouth researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while participants – overweight and healthy-weight adolescents ages 12-16 – were watching some episodes of the “The Big Bang Theory,” a popular age-appropriate TV series. The teens were not aware of the study’s objective. From time to time, TV food commercials as well as non-food commercials were aired. The fMRI readings showed that  brain regions involved in attention and focus (occipital lobe, precuneus, superior temporal gyri and right insula) and in processing rewards (nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal cortex) were more strongly active when the food commercials were viewed, more so than non-food commercials. Adolescents with higher body fat showed greater reward-related activity than those with less body fat, particularly in regions associated with taste perception. What’s really surprising was that the food commercials also activated parts of the brains that control the mouth, its movements and perception. What’s more, the researchers played genuine commercials like those aired on live TV by McDonald’s and Burger King, so the findings must be closer to reality.

“This finding suggests the intriguing possibility that overweight adolescents mentally simulate eating while watching food commercials,” says lead author Kristina Rapuano, a graduate student in Dartmouth’s Brain Imaging Lab. “These brain responses may demonstrate one factor whereby unhealthy eating behaviors become reinforced and turned into habits that potentially hamper a person’s ability lose weight later in life.”

The food commercials also activated brain centers that control the mouth. Credit: Kristina Rapuano

The food commercials also activated brain centers that control the mouth. Credit: Kristina Rapuano

So, the teens aren’t just tempted to eat food, they actually unconsciously simulate what it would be like to munch on some chicken wings or burger. Dietary planers should take this into serious consideration. It’s not just temptation activated by reward centers in the brain that makes it hard for kids to follow a diet, but also a coupled bodily movement that’s always a sign of an eating habit or disorder. Findings appeared in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

“Unhealthy eating is thought to involve both an initial desire to eat a tempting food, such as a piece of cake, and a motor plan to enact the behavior, or eating it,” Rapuano says. “Diet intervention strategies largely focus on minimizing or inhibiting the desire to eat the tempting food, with the logic being that if one does not desire, then one won’t enact. Our findings suggest a second point of intervention may be the somatomotor simulation of eating behavior that follows from the desire to eat. Interventions that target this system, either to minimize the simulation of unhealthy eating or to promote the simulation of healthy eating, may ultimately prove to be more useful than trying to suppress the desire to eat.”



(c) FastFoodHealth.org

Overweight kids overcome junk food addiction by staring at it

Counter the popular dictum “out of sight, out of mind”, Kerri Boutelle, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at University of California, San Diego’s School of Medicine, wants to tackle junk food addition in a novel way. In her experiments, she instructs overweight kids to stare at foods like french fires or cheetos  in order to overcome their urges and develop willpower. Her research has yet to be published, however preliminary findings suggests her method works.

(c)  FastFoodHealth.org

(c) FastFoodHealth.org

Junk food can be extremely addicting, and when consumed regularly in large quantities it can cause a variety of health problems. For children, who often aren’t aware of the health hazards associated with it, junk food can be particularly appetizing. Subsequent complications include obesity, chronic illness, low self-esteem and even depression, as well as affecting how they perform in school and extracurricular activities.

Often , it’s not enough teaching kids that junk food is bad for them. Smokers know they can get cancer, but they go on with it day by day. Typically, junk food addiction is battled by keeping kids as far away from it as possible. Boutelle takes an alternate route. In her study, she enlisted children between the ages of 8 and 12 and asked them to rate their cravings for a particular food. The kids then had to sniff it, take a bite, stare at it for five minutes, and then report their cravings for a second time.

“We are teaching kids to tolerate their cravings and not eat when they’re not physically hungry,” she told the Wall Street Journal.

Boutelle claims her study works in the lab and for about six months afterwards as well after subsequently tracking the children’s eating habits. Her experiment has yet to be published, however Boutelle is currently working on tracking other kids as well.