Home Health News Overeating: Comparable To Drug Use, Cause of Mental Illness?

Overeating: Comparable To Drug Use, Cause of Mental Illness?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

From NPR:

If you’ve ever wondered why it’s hard to stay on a diet, consider this observation from Ralph DiLeone, a brain scientist at Yale University: “The motivation to take cocaine in the case of a drug addict is probably engaging similar circuits that the motivation to eat is in a hungry person.”

That’s what brain scientists have concluded after comparing studies of overeating with studies of drug addiction, DiLeone says.

They’ve also found that, at least in animals, sweet or fatty foods can act a lot like a drug in the brain, he says. And there’s growing evidence that eating too much of these foods can cause long-term changes in the brain circuits that control eating behavior.

The food-drug link comes from the fact that both animal and human brains include special pathways that make us feel good when we eat, and really good when we eat sweet or fatty foods with lots of calories, DiLeone says.

“Drug addiction is really hijacking some of these pathways that evolved to promote food intake for survival reasons,” he says

That doesn’t necessarily mean food is addictive the way cocaine is, DiLeone says, but he says there is growing evidence that eating a lot of certain foods early in life can alter your brain the way drugs do.

Food That Changes The Brain

Teresa Reyes, a research assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Pennsylvania, showed that in an experiment with mice.

Reyes was part of a team that gave mice a high-fat diet from the time they were weaned until they reached 20 weeks, so they gained significant amounts of weight and became obese. Then the researchers looked at the brain’s pleasure centers — areas known to change in drug addiction.

“What we found is that in animals that were obese, there were really dramatic changes in these areas of the brain that participate in telling us how rewarding food is,” Reyes says. The changes made these areas less responsive to fatty foods, so an obese mouse would have to eat more fat than a typical mouse to get the same amount of pleasure, she says.

And some of the changes didn’t go away, even when the mice returned to a normal diet.

“So it is similar to what happens in cases of chronic drug abuse,” Reyes says. “The reward circuitry changes in a similar way, and that promotes the seeking of that drug, or in our case, in seeking palatable food.”

That could help explain why obese children tend to remain that way as adults, she says.

I’m not going to go on an “I told you so!” rant, but I’m going to go on an “I told you so!” rant.

I have the following thoughts:

  1. A company with millions to invest in creating the right recipe… millions to invest in developing the right formula to produce that recipe cheaply… and millions to spend on taste testing that recipe to ensure that it’s well-received by the largest percentage of the population… do we really think they’re not tapping into this response our brains have to those “perfect combinations?” Do we really expect companies that have to produce profits to not tap into the one response that would ensure that we remain loyal, faithful customers? Providing us the pleasure that we [subconsciously] seek, outright guarantees that we’ll keep giving them our money. They’re our pushers… giving us our fix.
  2. A company investing everything they’ve got in creating a product that we can become addicted to… a product that has very little nutrients, right? If, when we eat, there’s also a secondary system that compels us to keep eating so that the body can obtain those nutrients… doesn’t this only create a cycle that is only broken by a conscious decision to leave the drug–er, processed foods alone? I mean, if we’re eating for an emotional fix, and the body is perpetuating a “hungry” feeling because we’re only eating food that gives us our high, not food that nourishes us, then chasing that “hungry” only causes us to eat more “emotion fueling” food, which then only causes us to be hungry again in an hour because there’s no nourishment. Bizarre.
  3. Take a cold hard look at that bold red line. If you are someone who eats food for that pleasured feeling – the feeling that causes you to feel as if you’re escaping reality, then that bold, red line is for YOU. Every time you indulge, every time you emotionally eat, you make it that much harder for you to achieve those same feelings on that same amount of food the next time you overindulge. Every time you emotionally eat, it’s going to require more… and more… and more. Period.
  4. Take a second cold, hard look at that bold red line. Don’t be mistaken, sure that line says “you’d have to eat more fat” but if the vice were cocaine instead of fat (or sugar instead of fat), or anything instead of fat, it’d still apply. Think about what emotional eating really is – it’s hiding from reality because one prefers the pleasure they achieve from food. Now, if engaging in emotional eating makes it harder to get that same amount of pleasure each time you do it, and you’re seeking that pleasure as a means of hiding from reality… wouldn’t all this make reality that much more difficult to bear? Wouldn’t this trigger some form of depression? Does this coincide with the increase of anti-depression medication flooding the market?
  5. “That could help explain why obese children tend to remain that way as adults, she says.” This makes it that much more important for us to address healthy eating, healthy body image and healthy living altogether with our children. Because if the habits we teach them as children wind up altering the way their brain handles pleasure or causes them to devalue the pleasures of life because they prefer the pleasures of food… it becomes that much more difficult for them to change as they age. Not that it’s impossible, but it is absolutely an uphill battle.

The article isn’t done, though:

Addictive Food?

More evidence of a link between food and drugs comes from a team that has been trying to understand how hunger can trigger an animal’s craving for drugs.

“Hungry animals will take a lot of drugs,” says Uri Shalev, a researcher at Concordia University in Montreal.

Shalev and his colleagues studied rats that had learned to give themselves heroin by pressing a lever. When the scientists removed the heroin, the rats mostly stopped pressing the lever. But when the scientists also took away the rat’s food, the lever pressing came back with a vengeance.

The rats would press the lever hundreds of times, “even though they don’t get the drug anymore,” Shalev says.

The team thought this behavior might involve a substance in the brain called neuropeptide Y, which makes animals feel hungry. And, sure enough, when hungry rats got a substance that blocks neuropeptide Y, they stopped pressing the lever.

Many other studies also have shown links between food and drugs.

A Swedish team found that a stomach hormone called ghrelin could make rats seek sugar the way addicts seek drugs. And a team at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that male rats chose sugar over small amounts of cocaine, while female rats did just the opposite.

Even so, DiLeone, the Yale researcher, says it’s still not clear how far the food-drug comparison holds up, especially in people.

“There’s an ongoing argument in my field whether food is addictive or not,” he says. “But whether it’s addictive or not, there’s probably components that are similar to addiction.”

That means it makes sense to focus on eating behavior early in life, when the brain is adapting to a particular environment. It also probably makes sense to take approaches used to treat addiction and adapt them to overeating,” DiLeone says.

My thoughts?

  1. Look for “the new drug that blocks neuropeptide Y” to come out in the next few years. Never mind what else it does to your brain… all that matters is that it’ll make you skinny. (That’s not even sarcasm – that’s exactly how it’ll be pitched, too.)
  2. How is there an ongoing argument regarding whether food is addictive or not? Anything that brings pleasure and release – sex, alcohol, narcotics, exercise, whatever – can be addictive. Why not food? Which researchers are the ones who don’t think food can be addictive and what is their argument? Or is it the stigma that says “if I say food can be addictive, that’d give fat people a reason to be fat… and there’s never a reason to be fat” that’s blocking one’s ability to be open to the realities?
  3. I think it’s interesting how food is painted as a gateway drug in rats, but seems unfathomable in human beings. A craving for food being satisfied by drugs instead of the food we seek. That feels much more like something society taught us – that it is unacceptable to substitute food for drugs. I wonder if society’s influence wasn’t involved, if the same results could be seen in human beings. I know that’s a rhetorical question, because there’s no possible way you could test for that without doing some wildly inhumane things.
  4. Lastly. With all that we’re learning about how the brain reacts to these products-engineered-to-give-maximum-pleasure and our ability to become addicted to them… will the government ever get involved? Should they? Or should the public be made blatantly aware of these issues and learn to tread lightly on their own?

Thse are my thoughts… what are yours?

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Eva December 2, 2010 - 1:30 PM

This is a very good article. Remember, people years ago didn’t believe that the tobacco companies were putting things in cigarettes to make people addicted.

Many people recovering from alcohol and drugs turn to food, especially sweets

I believe that fast food is deliberately addictive and that’s what makes the selling to children so insidious, get them hooked early and they’ll keep coming back for more. When I was a child there used to be a candy that looked like a cigarette, so what was that doing? Getting children used to holding a cigarette in their hands so when they get older they’ll want the real thing.

Biolobri December 2, 2010 - 5:27 PM

As a researcher interested in addiction and diet, I am fascinated by this. Most of it makes perfect sense with my neuroscience background (I actually studied ghrelin a bit when I worked in a neuroscience lab) and I honestly thought it was a generally accepted idea that food can be addictive (or at least use the same reward pathway). I’m seriously considering contacting these researchers to work with them when I go back to pursue my PhD. Thanks!

Anyways, further reading:

And though this is only somewhat related, I still feel the need to share. Erika, I know I told you about the rat study before (via e-mail) but this expands on it (a bit.. thought not as much as my inner scientist would like!)

Cheryl December 3, 2010 - 12:32 PM

Interesting article. I find it odd that they seem to be unwilling to say that food is addictive, when some years ago, it was noted that gastric bypass patients were becoming addicts to alcohol, shopping and other things at a higher rate, just replacing one addiction with another.

Erika December 3, 2010 - 12:49 PM

“it was noted that gastric bypass patients were becoming addicts to alcohol, shopping and other things at a higher rate, just replacing one addiction with another.”

If ANYONE can find this resource before I can, I would be ETERNALLY grateful. I HAVE to see this!

Stefanie December 23, 2011 - 8:22 PM

I haven’t seen an article yet, but I knew a co-worker who had gastric bypass. She did well with her weight loss and has not had any issues of that sort; but she admitted that she drinks much now….which showed me quickly that if one truly has issues with food, it takes more than a superficial change to fix something not balanced within (the mind)

netminnow January 18, 2015 - 9:28 AM

Couple of comments:
First,as always Erika, you’re the best for the latest findings and breaking it down into cognitive cues that shape my behavior for the better. And for provoking further thought/metacognition to keep growing in the right direction.

Second, gastric bypass candidates are warned right off the bat to severely limit alcohol intake, if not eliminate because 1)it’s high calorie 2)the stomach w/food acts as a barrier to slow alcohol entry into the bloodstream. After surgery, that mechanism is bypassed and alcohol impact is greater, faster. So the medical community is well aware of the potential for alcoholism right off the bat. I wonder how much informed consent to the point of a real choice for patients is going on.

I have 3 different known bypass acquaintances and all three have told me there is not enough emotional support after the surgery. And 2 go to weekly support groups specifically for GBP post-ops! All three admit to post-op difficulties with alcohol w/one admitting they went from food to alcohol addiction and one other is IMO a gambling addict now who is also gaining weight again.

Two have told me they wish they had just persisted in building new systems to support weight loss instead of GBP w/ all the serious side-effects. The other one thinks GBP probably saved her life but not sure if it’s worth the price paid. She’s been hospitalized 2x in 14 months post-op for complications.

Anecdotal evidence aside, here is one link http://psychcentral.com/news/2012/07/08/increased-risk-of-alcoholism-linked-to-bariatric-surgery/41307.html

but I first encountered this discussions in 2003, so it’s been known for quite sometime. Article above outlines : 1st year post op not much
change but 2nd year post op rate of alcoholism rises 50% from apprx 7% to 10.7%!

Wish it were more possible to get medical coverage/support for coaching
new beliefs, examining old beliefs and replacing unhealthy systems with healthy ones. And yes, Erika, you’re right, totally systemic or institutionalized.

Jennifer February 11, 2011 - 5:16 PM

interesting… I totally understand how food (certain foods, anyway) can be addictive because it taps into centers in our brain that are not related to fueling our bodies– I would never eat a Twinkie for what it could do for my body, I’d eat it for what it would do for my brain/emotions. And I totally understand how getting that feeling once can lead to wanting it again. Thankfully, I’m in the process of kicking my emotional eating habits!

fyi, here’s one link to the gastric bypass-leading-to-alcoholism story: http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=2210783&page=1

lynaya July 14, 2011 - 7:56 PM

This totally reconfirms my (failed) decision to avoid processed food altogether. I feel like if I relapse I will go downhill. I say that from experience….I feel like this study just confirms what me and any other food addict already know.

LaDonna July 15, 2011 - 2:21 PM

Thanks for posting this Erika. There are a ton of trainers in the industry that need to read/hear this!

Stefanie December 23, 2011 - 8:19 PM

I think the view that the person took on writing this article is good. On the other hand, when I saw the title of this blog, I thought: Overeacting shows an addiction to food, sure. And I think part of that comes from the things that are IN the food. Yes, food should taste good, but sometimes if we get so focused on what we want to taste, then we continue to eat. It’s focusing on the taste buds and not foucsing on filling the stomach ONLY. It’s not a mental illness, it’s a misguided view of food and what it is essentially for.

Lethal Astronaut January 26, 2012 - 11:46 PM

Thanks for such an excellent post – and such great links from your commenters 🙂

Anastasia January 1, 2013 - 4:40 PM

I totally agree with this article. I finally saw parallels in my eating habits and with my daughter and cutting. The cycle is totally the same we both are just dealing with stress and pain differently. It wasn’t until my daughter got help that I noticed the same pattern of behavior – along with my own issues of having ADHD, which I have long been in the denial of (was org. diagnosed with about 25+ yrs ago and stopped taking meds in my late teens).
Know with proper education and care, I too am getting help. That’s some much for posting this article and love love and thank you for this blog.

Anastasia January 1, 2013 - 4:42 PM

*that is Thanks so much 😛

Erika Nicole Kendall January 1, 2013 - 9:07 PM

*big hugs*

Rudy July 29, 2013 - 6:59 PM

Great article! I have been trying to explain the concept of addiction to my colleges from a different perspective than NA/AA philosophy. We are basically driven by desires and needs that need to be fulfilled, therefore; we can become addicted to anything that gives us satisfaction or feeling s of wellbeing.

Monica March 15, 2016 - 11:15 AM

just came across your blog and this article…my life is beginning to make so much sense! The more I ate to satisfy that “urge”, the more depressed I began to feel in the long run. At some point I just began eating more to get a “fix”, eating to take away my headaches, eating to give me a boost of energy, eating to stop my stomach for hurting and shouting for something in it, eating to make myself believe that it was time to eat again, and I could not stop. After being on antidepressants for a year and still eating something just did not seem right. So I did an age ol’ trick for myself, i started taking half the antidepressant and walking. After 3 months, I noticed I smiled more, my thoughts about eating began to change, I could actually talk myself out of the late night heresy bar…YUM! but I nibbled on dark chocolate instead. I began to have a little bit more control. Now, I am FAR from where I want to be because I struggle on a daily basis, when I open my eyes every morning I start mapping out my food…its exhausting! thank you for this article! It’s very healing to know I’m not alone, and there is/was a beginning to this madness!

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