27 Jul 2013 06.21 am by K. Daniel
The effect of what you eat goes well beyond of simply making you full. Eating is not only a function that we perform to keep us alive; it is also a source of pleasure, social interaction, and culture. Mention a food and it may trigger great memories of growing up in rural areas, or perhaps of grandma's cooking.
Many of us hold tight bonds with the foods that we eat without even realizing it in the first place. As an example, when I come across exotic fruits such as the rambutan, durian, and mangoes, it takes me back to a time when I was growing up in South East Asia. The chilled sweet fruits were often eaten to combat the heat. And to this day I still look for a cold sweet mango or durian smoothie on a hot summer's day.
But is it simply psychological? Do our cravings, desires, and wants come from wanting to experience something good? Or is it something that the body needs? Do your past experiences affect the human body in such a way that we develop certain dependence towards certain foods?
Food and the Brain
Enter the study that is Food Choice. It is a subset of food science based on research which investigates and aims to identify what and why do we select the foods we eat. And so, what does food choice says about the foods that we eat?
Quite a bit actually, with factors such as taste preferences, social factors, environmental cues, dietary limitations, expert advice, as well as age and gender differences affecting what we put into our mouths.
But this doesn't necessarily explain the very real sensation of pleasure when eating something we love. Do the foods we eat directly affect the brain?
The simple answer is yes. Moreover, there is one food component which was found to be the main trigger. Consuming junk food has been shown to increase endorphin, a hormone that combats pain and produces a euphoric feeling.
Dopamine, an organic chemical which plays a major role responsible for reward-seeking behaviour is also produced. In effect, you experience a reduction of stress and a sense of achievement from junk food, while creating a positive association between these foods and feeling good. In extreme cases, addiction may arise.
The Sugar Effect
But does this only apply to junk foods? A study published in the journal Neuroscience concludes that a daily sugar binge increases dopamine levels in the brain. Another study published in the journal Physiology and Behaviour also states that an increase in dopamine levels from sugars reinforces consumption pattern.
In other words, it is the sugars found inside these foods rather than the fat and salt which mainly triggers addiction. And from that we can also conclude that the source we get it from does not matter. Fruits contain considerable amounts of sugars, which explain my cravings.
In the case of fruit, this would be beneficial, especially because of the amount of nutrients they contain compared to junk foods and other processed goods. Which means you may still satisfy your cravings by choosing a crisp apple over a Popsicle.
Psychology, Physiology, and Food Assessment
It also explains how we assess the quality of the produce that we eat. Because of the positive reinforcement experienced when we consume sugar containing goods, then it would stand to reason that there is a preference over those that contain more. One example of this is the preference of ripe fruits over unripe fruits, as the ripening process increases sugar levels.
So indeed, our assessment of food quality is tightly connected with how it ultimately affects the body. The joy that is experienced when we consume produce that is to our liking is very real, and is embedded into our physiology.
Granted, as mentioned by Bart Hoebel, a Princeton University professor of psychology studying the effects of sugar on the brain, sugar addiction is much milder compared to substance abuse. It is also possible that the foods I seek are also a product of habit and positive memories rather than me simply having a big sweet tooth.
- Image by Renee Comet, courtesy of National Cancer Institute
- Rada, P., Avena, N.M., and Hoebel, B.G. (2005) Daily bingeing on sugar repeatedly releases dopamine in the accumbens shell Neuroscience 134(3): 737 - 744
- Sclafani, A., Touzani, K., Bodnar, R.J. (2011) Dopamine and learned food preferences Physiology & Behaviour 104(1): 64 - 68
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