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food-tape-measureRegardless of whether you are trying to lose weight or simply maintain a healthy body weight, the topic of calories has likely come up a time or two. And although current research points to the importance of calorie quality over calorie quantity, it may not make a bean hill of difference when it comes to your brain.

As it turns out, our brains may be craving high-calorie foods even when we don’t know it. Scientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital in Canada asked about 30 people to take part in a unique study—one in which they were asked to look at 50 images of different types of food and estimate their calorie content, as well as rate how well they liked them.

After viewing the images, study participants were asked to bid on each food item in a mock auction so that researchers could determine how much they wanted it. Interestingly, while their estimated calorie counts were incorrect the majority of the time, it seems their brains were one step ahead.

The more calories a particular food had, the more the participants were willing to pay for it—indicating their brains had no trouble picking out the high-calorie items. In fact, when high-calorie foods appeared, MRI scans showed increased activity in the areas of the brain that process the taste and sensory properties of food. Basically, your brain is evaluating the calorie content of your next meal even if you are unaware of it.

Scientists believe this insight into why people choose certain foods may help determine the factors that lead to obesity and related conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.

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Environmental toxins surround us every day, contributing to a nationwide increase in illness and chronic disease. Just recently, a new study examined the presence of one toxin in particular—arsenic—in U.S. well water and found that it raises heart health risks significantly.

Although most Americans rely on municipal (or public) water, roughly 15 million households (mainly in rural areas) use well water. This is important because while public water is required by the EPA to adhere to a 10 parts-per-billion safety standard for arsenic to avoid the harmful effects of chronic arsenic exposure, well water is not—and in some cases levels are more than a hundred times higher than the so-called “safe” standard.

For the study, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health looked at a handful of Native American populations in areas of the Dakotas and southwestern United States whose primary source of water is well water. Their goal was to determine whether or not there was a link between arsenic in the water and a higher incidence of heart disease; as it turns out, there’s a big one.

After analyzing the urine samples of roughly 4,000 individuals, they discovered that the higher the level of arsenic in the urine, the higher the prevalence of atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in the arteries), stroke and heart attack. And in those with chronic arsenic exposure, heart disease rates were often doubled. Previous studies conducted outside the U.S. have had similar results.

Though not a heavy metal, researchers say, arsenic shares similar qualities and may cause damage to the cells and blood vessels around the heart. There is also evidence it may trigger an abnormal inflammation response in the body as well as affect healthy metabolism by disrupting the breakdown of fats, both of which can contribute to harmful plaque buildup.

As scientists continue to examine the link between arsenic exposure from well water and heart health risks, they are also looking into raising awareness in the medical community about the harmful effects of environmental toxins. One possible solution in this case is the use of water filters as well as chelation treatment (which helps remove stored metals from the body’s cells and tissues).

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