You’re trying to lose weight, so which food do you think will help you win at losing: olive oil or honey?
The answer is complex because fat provides more than twice the calories per gram (9 calories per gram) while sugars have just 4 calories per gram. And since weight loss is about calories in versus calories out, you may assume going with a sugary treat is better.
But when it comes to foods we crave, both fat-rich and sugar-rich foods are desirable and both trigger oral and neurobiological effects that increase our desire for more of the treats that contain these nutrients. That’s why so many studies show that foods like ice cream (combo of sugar and fat); baked goods (combine sugar and fat); chocolate (combination of sugar and fat) can have “addictive” like qualities.
A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition set out to look at MRI activity after adults consumed four different milkshakes. The study used 106 healthy, lean adolescents and the researchers provided them four different chocolate-flavored milkshakes of equal calories and varying amounts of fat and sugar. The four milkshake options included: high-sugar and high-fat; low-sugar, high-fat; low-fat, high-sugar; and a low-sugar, low–fat milkshake.
After subjects consumed a trial milkshake, the researchers monitored which areas of the brain were activated. When subjects had the high-sugar was consumed, high-sugar resulted in a greater activation of both sides of the brain that are responsible for cravings and things that make us feel good. The high-fat milkshakes, stimulated some of the oral responses that are triggered by the mouth feel or texture of fat, but did not activate areas of the brain that make us crave more of the sweet stuff. In addition, the low-fat, low-sugar milkshakes did not activate areas of the brain that motivates us to eat more.
Based on this study, the authors suggest that sugary foods and beverages are more likely to test your willpower—and win!—compared to fat-rich foods. This study is consistent with other studies that suggest that people can develop “addictive-like” behaviors to sweets, which leads to desire for more while the reward becomes diminished, requiring more and more to get the same feel-good response. The way in which sugar acts on areas of the brain is similar to some addictive drugs and alcohol.
For more about the harmful effects of added sugars, read this.
Stice E, Burger KS, Yokum S. Relative ability of fat and sugar tastes to activate reward, gustatory, and somatosensory regions. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Dec;98(6):1377-84. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.069443. Epub 2013 Oct 16.