Discrimination may disrupt how the brain and the gut talk to each other, raising risk of obesity, study finds

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Experiencing discrimination may change how the brain and the gut communicate with each other, a new study has found. The disruption, the researchers say, could promote behaviors that increase people’s risk of obesity.

The study, published Monday in the journal Nature Mental Health, included more than 100 participants, mostly women, who filled out questionnaires to gauge their experiences of discrimination in their day-to-day lives. The participants then underwent brain scans as they were being shown pictures of sugary and fatty foods, such as cake and ice cream, along with pictures of lower-sugar and low-fat foods like fruit and salad. They also provided fecal samples so the researchers could study their gut microbiome.

In individuals who reported experiencing high levels of discrimination, the photos of unhealthy, high-calorie foods triggered a larger response in the reward processing region of the brain, called the frontal-striatal region. This part of the brain is also involved with motivation and executive control. 

That heightened response can lead people to reach for sugar and high-fat foods, the researchers said.