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Scientists discuss how to retrain our brains to beat junk food addiction and eating disorders

Brigid O’Connell, December 2, 2019 6:40PM Herald Sun

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Sugary and fatty foods have the power to interrupt the signals to your brain telling you are full. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA media_cameraSugary and fatty foods have the power to interrupt the signals to your brain telling you are full. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA

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Sugary and fatty foods have the power to change how your brain works and stop your brain knowing when you’re full.

Australia’s leading brain scientists are meeting in Adelaide, South Australia this week to discuss how to take back control of our appetites and health, retraining our brains and our eating patterns to help us be healthier and manage eating disorders.

University of Adelaide professor Amanda Page will present research to the Australasian* Neuroscience* ­Society that shows that appetite control communication between the brain and gut is weakened and delayed in obese mice.

Even when the mice are put back on a healthy diet, that response does not return to normal.

“People say, ‘Oh, they should just stop eating.’ But they aren’t getting those ­signals telling them when to stop,” Prof Page said.

Chubby boy is looking at junk food plate media_cameraScientists understand that even when we go back to healthy food after a junk food diet, the brain still doesn’t get the message you are full. Picture: istock

Her team will now test whether time-restricted eating, where eating is kept to certain hours – to better match the body’s natural ups and downs in energy needs – can help reset healthy metabolism* and appetite regulation*.

Research from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health has found that junk food acts on the brain’s reward systems in the same way addictive drugs do.

saka20151102-035 media_cameraJunk food acts on the brain’s reward systems in the same way addictive drugs do.

Further, Dr Robyn Brown has found that the female brain is most vulnerable* to ­disordered* eating in the face of stress or strong emotions.

Her study found that stressed female mice binge*-ate the equivalent of their daily food intake in just 15 minutes. Male mice were not affected when in the same conditions.

“Compulsory eating is very hard to overcome when the brain is hardwired* that way,” Dr Brown said.

The laboratory of Queensland University of Technology professor Selena Bartlett has uncovered that junk food and alcohol impair* the brain’s ­impulse* control.

The great news is that Prof Bartlett said, before her presentation this week, the adult brain was “plastic” – which means able to be remodelled – and could be changed with “practice and effort”.

She has developed a soon-to-be-­released app called Trace It, which calms the brain’s impulse control to relieve stress.

Female medical school professor teaches about the human brain media_cameraThe great news is the brain is plastic, which means it can be retrained to change your behaviour. This woman is holding a model of a human brain.

GLOSSARY

  • Australasian: region including Australia and Asia
  • neuroscience: the science of brains and the nervous system
  • metabolism: the chemical processes in your body as it works
  • regulation: control something with rules
  • vulnerable: at risk of damage
  • disordered: not normal
  • binge: a period of excessive eating or drinking
  • hardwired: make a pattern of behaviour standard or instinctive
  • impair: stop something working properly
  • impulse: a sudden and strong urge to do something without thinking

EXTRA READING

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Video game addiction officially a disease

Call to ban lollies at checkouts

QUICK QUIZ

  1. What will Amanda Page tell the scientists?
  2. Why can’t some people “just stop eating”?
  3. Explain the difference eating observed between males and females under stress.
  4. What did the Florey Institute research find?
  5. What does it mean to say the brain is “plastic”?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Plastic brain
It states in the Kids News article that the adult brain is “plastic” and can be remodelled with practice and effort.

Draw a picture of the adult brain and around the brain write some ways you could remodel the brain to train it into healthier habits rather than reaching for sugary junk foods. Include in your descriptions other ways to deal with emotional and stressful situations rather than eating junk food.

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Health and Physical Education, Critical and creative thinking

2. Extension
What are the signals you should look for to know when your body is full? What happens if you continue to eat? Why do you think the female brain is different to a male’s brain when it comes to eating?

Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Health and Physical Education, Critical and creative thinking

VCOP ACTIVITY
After reading the article, with a partner, highlight as many connectives as you can find in pink. Discuss if these are being used as conjunctions, or to join ideas and create flow.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Do you think it is harder to know when you’re full eating junk food than when eating healthier food?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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