Just Looking at Junk Food Can Make You Feel Hungry

By Chelsea Whyte on June 26, 2012 7:14 PM EDT

hamburger
Just looking at this picture of a hamburger can increase your appetite for high-calorie foods, according to a new study. (Photo: Creative Commons: chichacha)

The images of high-calorie foods that you see on billboards, subway ads and television commercials may be feeding your brain's reward centers and triggering hunger pangs, according to new research from a team at the University of Southern California.

"Studies have shown that advertisements featuring food make us think of eating, but our research looked at how the brain responds to food cues and how that increases hunger and desire for certain foods," said principal investigator Kathleen Page.

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Page and her team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity in 13 obese young Hispanic women, chosen because of "the high risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes in the Hispanic community." They used women because previous research has shown that they are more responsive to food cues.

As fMRI measures blood flow to the brain, regions with increased blood flow indicated greater activity, with researchers measuring which brain regions were activated when viewing images and how sugar intake influenced this, according to The Daily Mail.

As each woman looked at pictures of high-calorie foods - hamburgers, cakes, cookies - and low-calorie foods - fruits and vegetables - their brain responses were scanned twice and the participants rated their hunger for sweet or savory foods on a scale of 1 to 10.

Halfway through the scans, the women drank 50 grams of glucose - equivalent to a can of soda - and another time, they drank 50 grams of fructose. Glucose and fructose are the main components of table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.

"We hypothesized that the reward areas in the women's brains would be activated when they were looking at high-calorie foods, and that did happen," said Page. "What we didn't expect was that consuming the glucose and fructose would increase their hunger and desire for savory foods."

Page said the human body's natural tendency to store energy from high-calorie foods stems from prehistoric days when the source of a person's next meal was not always obvious. But now, food is abundant and this research shows that added sweeteners might be affecting our desires for it.

"The current environment is inundated with advertisements showing images of high-calorie foods," Page said, according to The Huffington Post."This stimulation of the brain's reward areas may contribute to overeating and obesity, and has important public health implications."

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