How Junk Food Hacks Your Brain

How Junk Food Hacks Your Brain

[INTRO ♪] Junk food: you know it’s not healthy, but
it’s so good. And sometimes, it’s just too hard to resist. And scientists have been trying to figure
out why junk foods have so much power over us for a while. According to a study published yesterday
in the journal Cell Metabolism, it probably has a lot to do with the fact that they’re usually packed with both fat and carbs. Pff, my favorite! The researchers found that the reward centers
of our brains are more active when those nutrients are combined
in a snack— above and beyond what you would expect if you
just added the fat and the carbs together. Which is why milkshakes, and french fries, and dipping your french fries into milkshakes. And that means that it’s not just you—junk
food basically hacks our brains. Now, there have been hints to this phenomenon for
some time. Mice, for example, can stay trim if they’re
given either carbs or fat to eat, but they pack on the pounds if they’re given
a mix of the two. But it was less clear how that plays out in
the brain, or how it applies to people. So neurologists and physiologists in Germany
and the US set up a kind of food auction where participants
bid for snacks while the activity in their brains was measured
with fMRI. The calories in the various snacks were either
mostly from carbs, mostly from fat, or from a mix of both. And the items were sized so that each category
contained the same number of calories, to make them
equal from an energetic perspective. The team also made sure that all the foods were similarly well known and liked in a previous
experiment. That way, the group couldn’t prize any
set of foods over the others. But the participants consistently put higher
bids on the combo foods— things like chocolate chip cookies and candy bars— rather than things like nuts, cheese, or crackers. This willingness to shell out more for the
foods that had both fat and carbs was associated with more of a response in
brain regions associated with reward, like the top part
of the striatum. The researchers suspect this may be because
we have separate reward pathways for fats and carbs, both of which are simultaneously turned on
by the combo foods. And they think this, like, simultaneous reward circuit firing is something our brains
just don’t know how to handle. That actually makes sense if you look at our
ancestors. For eons, people mostly ate one food group
at a time, like when it became available— fatty meat one day, sugary honey or berries the next. They didn’t really have the option to do anything else because very few foods are naturally rich
in carbs and fat. Agriculture made it easier to mix nutrient
groups in meals, but it still wasn’t until the last 150 years
or so that we started actually making single food items that contain a dozen or
more calories of each nutrient type. So for the vast majority of our evolutionary
history, our brains simply haven’t had to try to estimate the nutritional
value of fatty, carb-filled foods. The researchers also discovered that we’re
pretty terrible at making such judgements. When they asked the participants to guess
the calories in the snacks they were bidding on, they kinda failed when it came to the
carb-y and combo foods. The researchers even identified a part of
the brain called the fusiform gyrus— a long strip that’s at the base of our brains—that’s
important for making these kinds of estimations. So, if we can’t estimate calories very well
when carbs are involved, and we’re getting a bigger reward from those
fat/carb combinations, that goes a long way to explaining why it’s so hard for me to not eat more donuts when somebody brings donuts in to work. I’m not saying I resent you for
bringing the donuts in, but it’s just hard, okay? They’re so good! Even when they’re not that good I keep eating them. Eventually, scientists may be able to use
this information to better understand overeating and obesity. And hopefully, that means they can come up
with ways for people to make better food choices, even when they’re
surrounded by lots of junk, as we so often are. Our next topic, weirdly enough, is about one
of those rare natural foods that’s rich in the carb and the fat department. African baobab trees produce fruits that have
a starchy pulp and a fatty seed. So in a way, that makes them, like,
kind of a proto-junk food, except that they’re also packed with fiber and protein,
so they’re pretty healthy. The problem is, a new report out this week
in the journal Nature Plants found that many of the biggest and oldest
baobabs— some of which have been feeding people for
thousands of years— are inexplicably dying out. The international research team surveyed 60
trees across the globe, checking on their health, measuring their size, and taking wood samples to estimate their ages. While you might think you could just, like,
count the rings like other trees, baobabs can grow more than one trunk throughout
their lives. These sometimes fuse together, creating what
looks like one big trunk, but inside there are open spaces. And this complexity makes it really hard to
date them— the baobab’s structure is so wacky
that rings don’t tell you very much. So, the scientists relied on special type
of radiocarbon dating instead. In this method, you use a very small sample
from multiple parts of the tree, and count the number of all the different
types of carbon atoms, which can then give you a date estimate. The team found that many trees were more than
1,000 years old, including one that was nearly 2,500 years old, making it the oldest flowering tree on the
planet. But, in a horrible and unexpected twist, they
also discovered that 9 of the 13 oldest trees and 5 of the 6 biggest
trees were dead or had at least one trunk that was dead. And those deaths all happened within the last
12 years. Scientists aren’t sure why this is happening, although they suspect climate change might
be to blame. With warmer temperatures and more drought, the trees might be struggling to get enough
water to support their large frames. But further research is needed to confirm
that suspicion. So now, the race is on to figure out exactly
what’s going on before we lose these iconic trees for good. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow! If you want to keep learning about this wacky
world we live in, including staying up to date with all the new, exciting scientific research, you might want to head on over to to watch a bunch of episodes and also click on that subscribe button. Thanks! [OUTRO ♪]

100 Replies to “How Junk Food Hacks Your Brain

  1. When I seen those cookies in the background it reminded me of the Starbucks cookie I left in my purse on Monday. 😂😂😂😂💀

  2. Well… Our oldest insticts tells us to save up for worst times.
    The problem is, there ain't no bad times in I-countries, (rarely, tho).

  3. one of the scishow kids videos was suggested in the list below this video, and I just have to say, Hank as the big anthropomorphic Dr. Turtleman is great fun

  4. I'm doing keto for weight loss and I've lost almost all my appetite for junk food, and I've completely lost my sweet tooth. On a carb heavy diet, I'd be snacking all the time and eating lots of junk food.. Hmm!

  5. You can learn to avoid junk food, it usually contains the same artificial flavour. Also if you wait some time after eating junk food, your body will tell you "that was not good…".

  6. I understand the neurological phenomenon that occurs with “combo foods,” but do we know why the combo foods result in obesity? Why did the mice gain more weight when eating combo foods than a single food (I’m assuming in each scenario the amount of calories was held constant)? I feel like this wasn’t very clear.

  7. I have been saying that sugars are just a brain hack to make food seem to taste better than it really is, lol.

  8. did they take into account the impact of marketing and advertising on what we want?
    Those combo food companies, how much do they spend in ads and pop culture?

  9. Going vegan was hard only because of Junk Food. I ate Cheetos Doritos Pizza when vegetarian. I found Vegan alternatives after that being healthy was easier.
    I suggest everyone go vegan

  10. I must be brain-damaged. I tried donuts (and what looked like viennoiseries) on a trip in Montreal and New York. They were disgusting. I was sick for the day because of the burning amount of sugar and the grease.
    I'd rather eat a fresh carrot, maybe with a drop of olive oil.

  11. Ok two things. One. I’ve been saying ‘baobab’ wrong my whole life. Also s/o to rusty hammer doughnuts. Might have to keep a raccoon at work.

  12. I've been having a bit of an issue with overeating before bed. Last night I had an entire burger before bed. But like, all the ingredients were in the fridge, what was I suppose to do? T-T

  13. I've never gotten the appeal of dipping fries into a milkshake, I mean, why would you even try that? let alone doing it on the regular…

  14. I read about the baobabs. The rainy season has become too unpredictable, it seems, and the trees collapse without enough water.

  15. 4:12 When he said they were surveying the trees it got me thinking 'TREES DON'T TALK!?' xD

    or do they? o_o

  16. First I do not doubt that climate change is real. I do find it hard to blame climate change for the death of trees that are so old, they've surely been exposed to similar local weather events as the last 12 years during their very long life and lived to well, stay there and live some more.

    Isn't pollution a more likely suspect? Or maybe an imported parasite?

    In any case I hope the guilty party is found, no matter what it is, and that the trees can be saved.

  17. Did Hank do a Bear Grylls reference or have I just been exposed to too many yt poops and can no longer here "mah favourite" without thinking of piss drinking.

  18. When I walked 14miles a day at work (including stairs), I could eat whatever I wanted & stay under 150lbs (at 5'8'')…I miss skinny lol…

  19. So… You tell us that there is basically a tree that will give us a healthy alternative to junk food ,only to then tell us that it's going extinct.

  20. Ugghhhh, I don't know what to say about this episode…. 😛

    You see if I were to eat the fruit from the baobab tree, I would eat as much as I need to; whereas with junk food, I feel the urge to eat it even when I'm full.

    That's because they add flavor enhancers like E635, E621 and others. Most (if not all of them) are really bad for your health and have been linked to many serious illnesses.

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