Commercials might have a similar affect, scientists concluded after using lab rats to conduct a series of experiments to see how the environments where high-fat, high-sugar treats were routinely consumed could induce habitual control.
The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience, could lead to new ways to counter obesity and related lifestyle diseases.
It has so far shown that rats, though they lose the ability to make their own nutrition choices by becoming accustomed to environments where treats were routinely consumed, could also easily be brought out of this state.
The Sydney University researchers suggested using simple interventions, such as reminders of how unhealthy certain foods are, or interrupting the automatic processing of junk-food cues.
In the tests, the rats were first repeatedly exposed to junk food or bland chow environments. After being food-deprived, they were trained to press levers that provided either sugar water or pellets.
The experiment was repeated once they were full, though this time distinct sound cues were played when rats were placed in junk food or bland chow contexts, creating specific environmental cues associated with the food types.
The researchers found that the cue played in the bland chow context improved sensitivity to the devaluation of food, when rats were subsequently placed in the junk food context after having been fed.
A sound cue paired with bland food is all it took to take rats out of a habitual mode of behaviour and back into a volitional mind frame, the researchers concluded.