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   Jul 15

Junk food IS addictive: Saturated fat found in cakes, biscuits and pies has a ‘similar effect on the brain as Class A drugs’

Study: Foods rich in saturated fats heighten reward-seeking behaviour

Saturated fat is found in butter, pies, cakes and biscuits, fatty cuts of meat

The more fat rats ate, the more they needed to get their ‘fix’, study found

If you find you can’t open a packet of biscuits without scoffing the whole lot, then a new study may reveal why.

Certain types of fat have a similar effect on the brain as Class A drugs, research suggests.

The study shows foods rich in saturated fats heighten reward-seeking behaviour, much like an addict has to increase their dose over time.

Saturated fat is the kind of fat found in butter and lard, pies, cakes and biscuits, fatty cuts of meat, sausages and bacon, and cheese and cream.

It is also found in ghee, suet, palm oil and coconut oil.

For the study, researchers fed two groups of rats – one with a diet containing ‘good’ monounsaturated fats and another high in saturated fats.

Addictive: Saturated fat is the kind of fat found in butter and lard, pies, cakes and biscuits, fatty cuts of meat, sausages and bacon, and cheese and cream

Tempting: Certain types of fat have a similar effect on the brain as Class A drugs, research suggests

The research team obtained the findings by working with three groups of rats.

The first group of rats was the control group: they were given a low-fat diet containing roughly equal amounts of monounsaturated and saturated fatty acids.

The second group was given a monounsaturated high fat diet, of which 50 per cent of the calories were from fat derived from olive oil.

The third group was given a saturated high fat diet – again, 50 per cent of the calories were from fat, but this time derived from palm oil.

The high-fat diets were all the same in terms of sugars, proteins, fat content and calories, and the animals were free to eat as much or as little as they liked.

After eight weeks, while the weights of both groups were similar, behaviour tests indicated a difference.

The dopamine function, responsible for the motivation and reward system in the brain, was blunted in the group that had eaten a lot of saturated fat.

Study author Cecile Hryhorczuk, of the University of Montreal in Canada, said: ‘Our research group and others hypothesise that this leads the brain to try to compensate by heightening reward-seeking behaviour.

‘This is much like the phenomenon of drug tolerance where one has to increase the drug dose over time to get the same high.

She went on to explain: ‘So, a person consuming too much saturated fat may then compensate a reduced reward experience by seeking out and consuming more high-fat and high-sugar foods to get the same level of pleasure or reward.’

Her co-author, Professor Stephanie Fulton, of the University of Montreal, said: ‘Our research shows that independent of weight gain and obesity, high-fat feeding can cause impairments in the functioning of the brain circuitry profoundly implicated in mood disorders, drug addiction, and over-eating.

‘Another key finding is that the effects of prolonged high-fat feeding to dampen the sensitivity of this brain reward system are specific to saturated fats – palm oil used in this study – but not monounsaturated fat such as the olive oil used in this study.’

The researchers claim the study is the first of its kind to show that, regardless of weight changes, unrestrained intake of saturated fats can have negative effects on the brain.

Professor Fulton continued: ‘As we were able to control for changes in body weight, hormones and glucose levels, we think that the fats may be affecting the dopamine system by a direct action in the brain.

‘We in fact have separate evidence that brain inflammation could be involved in this process, as it is evoked by saturated high-fat feeding, which will be presented in a future publication.’

The study was published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.


* Swap butter, lard, ghee and coconut and palm oils with small amounts of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, such as olive, rapeseed or sunflower oils and spreads.

* Choose lean cuts of meat and make sure you trim any excess fat and remove the skin from chicken and turkey.

* Instead of pouring oils straight from the bottle, use a spray oil or measure out your oils with a teaspoon.

* Read food labels to help you make choices that are lower in saturated fat.

* Opt to grill, bake, steam, boil or poach your foods.

* Make your own salad dressings using ingredients like balsamic vinegar, low fat yoghurt, lemon juice, and herbs, with a dash of olive oil.

* Use semi-skimmed, 1% or skimmed milk rather than whole or condensed milk.

* Cottage cheese, ricotta and extra light soft cheese are examples of lower fat cheese options.

* Remember that many cheeses are high in saturated fat so keep your portions small – matchbox sized. Opt for strongly flavoured varieties and grate it to make a little go a long way.

Source: British Heart Foundation/Daily Mail

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