Why it’s so hard to resist alcohol and fast food

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A new study highlights the brain mechanisms that make alcohol, fat, and sweet food “irresistible” to most humans, especially when under stress.

Have you ever tried to fend off a sudden craving for ice cream, fries or glass of beer before “cracking” because it was too hard to resist?

You are far from being alone. The impact of these stimuli on the brain has even been the subject of many neuroscientific studies that have shown that the addiction to certain foods activates certain areas of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex and the thalamus by acting on the reward circuit.

But so far scientists have not known how much our brain is able to control these stimuli. A new study conducted by researchers at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and published in the journal Psychological Science, has revealed that we are well able to repel unwanted reward signals likely to trigger cravings and addiction. And we do this using the executive control processes of our brain.

However, if we are stressed or tired, it will probably be more difficult for us to ignore all the environmental stimuli around us, which makes us more likely to “crack”. “We have a set of control resources that guide us and help us remove these unwanted reward signals, but when these resources are taxed, they become more and more difficult to ignore,” says Poppy Watson, lead author of works.

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To reach this conclusion, the authors of the study submitted participants to memory and concentration games for money. “To manipulate participants’ ability to control their attention resources, we asked them to perform this task under high memory and low memory load conditions,” says Dr. Watson.

The researchers found that in the high-memory-laden version, participants struggled to focus on their task, focusing on details that were counterproductive.

These results demonstrate that to successfully remove unwanted reward signals from the environment, they needed full access to the executive control process. Which was not possible in this stressful version of the exercise.

“This is especially important in situations where people try to ignore the signals and improve their behavior, for example by consuming less alcohol or fast food,” says the researcher.

For Dr. Watson, this explains why people may find it more difficult to focus on diet or addiction if they are under a lot of stress.

“Constant anxiety or stress is the equivalent of the high memory load scenario of our experience, it has an impact on people’s ability to use their executive control resources in a way that helps them manage the undesirable signals in their environment “.

She also advises being strategic about stimulus exposure. “If you are under a lot of cognitive pressure (stress or fatigue), you should really try to avoid situations where you are tempted by the signals, you have to be in the right state of mind to be in a situation where you can not help being distracted and embarking on a path where you do not want to go,” she says.

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Now the next step is to understand how executive control can be strengthened and if this presents an opportunity for situations like detoxification.

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Angie Mahecha

Angie Mahecha, an Engineering Student at the University of Central Florida, is originally from Colombia but has been living in Florida for the past 10 Years.