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Ghrelin and the Appeal of High-Calorie Foods: Results

The appeal of high-calorie foods was higher when participants were either fasting and given saline or fed and given ghrelin compared to the visit when they got breakfast and were given saline. The effect was particularly evident for sweet, high-calorie food, Goldstone says.

"For the low-calorie foods, there was no difference in appeal between the three visits,'' Goldstone says, regardless of whether the participants were fed or not or had saline or ghrelin injected.

Goldstone also looked at how the appeal of the foods affected a part of the brain called the anterior orbital frontal cortex, ''known to be involved in encoding the reward value of food," Goldstone says.

The activation of this area declined when participants were fed but went back up when they were fed but given ghrelin.

''Thus, it appears that both acute fasting and ghrelin bias the reward systems to [choose] high-calorie foods," he says. "Changes in the hedonics of food -- how pleasurable we find food -- after missing meals or eating may be explained by levels of ghrelin circulating in the blood."

The research may provide more clues, Goldstone says, as to why so much of the population is obese or struggling with binge eating or other food issues. About one-third of U.S. adults are obese, according to the CDC, although the increase in obesity may be slowing.

In the future, Goldstone says, the development of drugs to block ghrelin may help in the obesity struggle.

Second Opinion

''It's fascinating how hormones can make you interested in chocolate," says Daniel Bessesen, MD, an endocrinologist and professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Denver, who moderated the news conference.

Science is evolving on how the brain controls food intake, he says. "It's not all about hunger, There is also this attractiveness of food. I think the attractiveness of food is part of why we overeat these days.''

Of the new research by Goldstone, Bessesen says: "His point is there is a biological basis for that [attractiveness]. His research shows, if you haven't eaten, it turns up the attractiveness of food."

Even so, ''the message doesn’t have to be hopeless," Bessesen tells WebMD. The information can help alert you to why you're sometimes attracted to certain foods -- and try to override that appeal.

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