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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- “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:
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.
- 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.)
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?