That’s right — donuts, cookies, chocolate-peanut butter pie. Let your imagination run wild.
According to new neuroscience research, eating sweet foods causes the brain to form a memory of a meal. In fact, the effects of sweets on the brain could be used to control eating behaviors, according to researchers at Georgia State University, Georgia Regents University and Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center.
While it’s logical to assume precisely the opposite — that sweet foods trigger cravings and fill our bodies with unhealthy fats — sugary meals activate the neurons in the dorsal hippocampus, which is the critical part of the brain for episodic memory.
What’s episodic memory? It’s the memory of your own experiences at a particular time and place. "We think that episodic memory can be used to control eating behavior," Marise Parent, professor in the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State, said in a press release. "We make decisions like 'I probably won't eat now. I had a big breakfast.' We make decisions based on our memory of what and when we ate."
In the study, meals were sweetened with a solution of either sucrose or saccharin, a sweet-tasting compound that’s often used as a substitute for sugar. Both sweeteners significantly increased the synaptic plasticity process, a process necessary for making memories, in the dorsal hippocampal neurons in rats.
You might not think that forming a memory of a meal is important, but disrupting this memory can lead to overeating. Researchers in London found that activities like watching television disrupts the memory encoding of a meal, thus increasing the amount of food people will consume during their next one, according to the press release. Studies have also found that, even when they’ve already eaten, people with amnesia will continue to eat when presented with food because they have no memory of a meal.
While snacking, stress eating, and overindulgence contribute to the weight problems of many people, this study poses that another critical factor in controlling our eating habits is to form episodic memories of our meals. While sweet foods stimulate the brain region responsible for these memories, of course, it’s important to savor the sweets in moderation.
So go ahead and have a little piece of peach cobbler. You don’t even have to feel guilty, thanks to neuroscience.