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Frain Bio Researchers Hope to Uncover Underlying Mechanisms of Ultra-Processed Food Attraction

Scientists at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC are looking to uncover the “why” of the American diet. Why are people drawn to ultra-processed foods, which have been linked to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, different types of cancer, and increased risk of heart disease and death?

It’s a critical question because ultra-processed foods make up about 58 percent of calories consumed in the United States. These foods have been through multiple manufacturing processes and contain many added ingredients. Examples include sweetened cereals, hot dogs, chips, and soft drinks.

“We have seen an explosion of these foods in our environment since the 1980s,” said Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, an assistant professor with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and associate director of the institute’s Center for Health Behaviors Research.

With support from a $2.2 million grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, her lab is recruiting participants for a study that will combine metabolic, neural, and behavioral measures with statistical modeling to uncover what drives people to reach for ultra-processed foods.

“We want to understand what it is in particular about these foods that leads to changes in body, brain, and behavior,” said DiFeliceantonio, who also holds an appointment in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “What are the underlying variables we have not thought about yet?”

The study will focus on the way the body processes different foods, taking into account features of the food itself. The goal is to identify specific properties of ultra-processed foods that support their consumption, the physiological and neurobiological mechanisms they exploit in the brain, and the individual factors that make people susceptible to overconsumption.

DiFeliceantonio said a better understanding of why these foods are so rewarding and overconsumed will lead to better strategies to improve health. The findings could provide evidence needed for changing dietary guidelines, with the goal of reducing diet-related mortality and disease.

“I see it as my job as a scientist to provide that information so people can make informed decisions about feeding themselves, and feeding their families, in a healthy way,” DiFeliceantonio said.

Leigh Anne Kelley

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