Growing up, I can remember watching the now infamous anti-drug commercial with the hot skillet and cracking egg. “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs,” warned the ominous voice-over guy as the freshly cracked egg popped and sizzled in the skillet’s immense heat. But according to a fascinating new study, the retro commercial may be in need of a serious overhaul. Instead of saying, “This is your brain on drugs”, the commercial should be declaring, “This is your brain on a high fat diet.”

The study, which was printed recently in eNeuro, a journal published by the Society for Neuroscience, suggests there is a strong link between high fat diets in childhood and addictive behavior in adults. And while the study seems to correlate with past studies that also warn of poor food choices and addictive behaviors, this study focused solely on fat as the main culprit, whereas other studies focused on sugar.

Rats were the test subjects of the recent study, but a unique similarity between rat brains and human brains means the study’s results are likely to apply to humans as well. During the study, researchers fed rats either a high fat diet or a normal lab diet throughout their childhood and adolescent years. Researchers then gave the rats amphetamine, a common stimulant found in many drugs that is also a precursor to dopamine production in the brain.

Dopamine is directly related to the brain’s pleasure-seeking and reward systems.
Researchers discovered that rats that were fed a high fat diet experienced a change in brain cell dopamine function in two key areas of the brain associated with addiction. Additionally, these same rats showed signs of increased sensitivity to amphetamine, suggesting they were becoming accustomed to having the stimulant present in their system. Ultimately, researchers determined that eating a high fat diet during childhood or adolescence predisposes one’s brain to addiction later in life, primarily because fat helps sensitize the brain’s reward system.

The neurological and behavioral differences seen in this study are particularly noteworthy because they suggest the brain’s dopamine system responds in a similar way to both illegal drugs and high amounts of dietary fat. And since the dopamine system continues to develop throughout adolescence, the study suggests that what a person eats when they’re 19 or younger has a potentially significant effect on their addiction risk later in life.

To be clear, the fats used in the study were “bad fats”, also known as saturated or artificial trans fats, which are commonly found in processed foods, baked goods, ice creams, packaged snacks, chips, microwave popcorn, fast food items and margarine. As for unsaturated “good fats”, like those found in vegetable and fish oils, flaxseeds, walnuts, and many of our Smart for Life® products, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that both children and adults get between 25 to 35 percent of their daily calories from these types of fats.

While the recent study on high fat diets and addictive behavior is the only one of its kind to be conducted thus far, its results show strong enough evidence to warrant further studies, and to make us all take a closer look at what we allow our children to eat on a regular basis.