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Alcohol Enhances Our Responses to Food Aromas, Making Us Crave It Even More

PETER DOCKRILL
6 JUL 2015

It's long been known that when we’ve enjoyed a few beverages (or perhaps a few too many) we can experience surges in appetite and desire for food, and a new study in the US offers a fairly radical explanation for our cravings: alcohol makes food smell better.

 

According to research conducted by Indiana University, exposure to alcohol sensitises the brain's response to food aromas, making us more receptive to its foodly charms, which can in turn, of course, lead to increased calorific intake.

The findings, published in the research journal Obesity, help explain what's often referred to as 'The Aperitif Effect': the phenomenon that alcohol encourages people to eat more.

There have been many theories as to what causes this, but this study is the first to look specifically at the role the brain plays in mediating calorific intake (although, depending on how many shots you've had, it sounds like at some point the brain switches over from 'mediating' to pure and simple 'enabling').

The researchers took 35 female volunteers and supplied them with alcohol via an IV drip prior to a meal; the same volunteers also received a placebo drip containing only saline in another session. In addition to having their eating behaviour observed by the researchers, the volunteers also had their brain responses to food and non-food aromas measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans.

When having received alcohol intravenously, the group did eat more food on average than when only exposed to the placebo drip. But more interestingly, the brain scans indicated that the hypothalamus - the part of the brain that regulates various metabolic processes - responded more to food aromas in particular after the volunteers had been exposed to alcohol.

When combined with the high energy counts that most alcoholic beverages already contain, booze subsequently presents a double whammy for drinkers conscious of their waistline.

"Our study found that alcohol exposure can both increase the brain's sensitivity to external food cues, like aromas, and result in greater food consumption," said William Eiler, the lead author of the study. "Many alcoholic beverages already include empty calories, and when you combine those calories with the aperitif effect, it can lead to energy imbalance and possibly weight gain."

With two out of every three American adults drinking alcohol and the country already experiencing a deadly obesity epidemic, the need for further research on the brain's relationship with alcohol is clear.

"This research helps us to further understand the neural pathways involved in the relationship between food consumption and alcohol," said Martin Binks from Texas Tech University and The Obesity Society in the US. "Often, the relationship between alcohol on eating is oversimplified; this study unveils a potentially more complex process in need of further study."