Researchers have long known that food and eating can release similar chemicals from our brains as those involved in drug addiction; eating and using drugs both release dopamine. This certainly explains a lot about how so large a segment of our population has reached levels of obesity never before seen. With all of the modern stressors that are placed on people, particularly during the last few years of such uncertain economic times, “comfort foods” may have become a little too comforting.
What have we learned?
Some studies have even suggested that the diversity in our foods also plays a part in the high levels of overweight people. By keeping our food varied and interesting, we tend to eat more, whereas a limited menu would not cause a physiological response as we’d tend to be bored by it. Boring meals, it seems, may be a plus when it comes to losing weight.
A study reported in August’s issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition seemed to bear out the fact that as people are exposed repeatedly to the same foods, even those which they love, they become less interested in that food. This was true in both ‘normal’ sized participants and obese individuals. This supports what the researchers called “habituation”, which spells out the disinterest in the drug of choice; in this case the drug is food. In fact, the authors of the study came to the conclusion that a reduction in variety may be strategically important for those who want to lose weight. That might be one reason why Atkins and other very restrictive diets work so well.
What does it mean?
Neural activity is similar whether eating or craving a favorite food; these activities are also similar to those who abuse drugs, as reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry. This study correlated people with higher food addiction scores with their greater brain activity during the anticipatory phase before the time they actually got to eat the food. This led researchers to conclude that their obesity may often be the result of an addictive process. This study measured the neural activity with fMRI while anticipating a chocolate milkshake, and also during consumption of that milkshake. The participant’s food addiction scores directly corresponded to activation in certain areas of the brain known to be important in eating motivation as well as substance abuse.
No associations were shown between BMI and the participant food addiction score. Those same scores were found to correspond with emotional eating, however. This led the researchers to question whether a more representative group might provide more accurate results.
How can it help?
Further studies are sure to follow, and should provide even greater understanding of obesity and physiology. True food addictions can be broken down so that there are more effective ways to treat them. Now that it’s known that meal monotony likely leads to a reduction in calorie consumption, balancing that concept with enough variety to still provide adequate nutrition will be vital. Other studies will report on differences in healthy weight people and the obese, and hopefully give us enough information to optimize eating plans for each segment of people.
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