Overeating Resembles Drug Addiction
> 10/24/2008 3:22:12 PM

Descriptions of overeaters as “food addicts” should no longer be treated as metaphor. A new study examining the patterns of compulsive consumption and its aftermath among the obese demonstrates that those trends eerily mirror the neurolgoical and behavioral patterns observed in drug addicts. This train of thought has been tested in several studies stretching over the last 8-10 years, but the newest findings may be the most convincing. 

A study performed at the Oregon Research Institute examined the real-time brain scans of female subjects separated by body weight indexes. The women viewed photos of sweet, calorie-rich milkshakes before being allowed to consume either said shakes or neutral placebo solutions. Results surprised researchers: activity in the pleasure centers of brains exposed to the initial photograph corresponded very closely to the body weight of the subject. Heavier women drew greater pleasure from the thought of the milkshake, but when they actually tasted it the trend reversed as their satisfaction levels were markedly lower than those of their healthier counterparts.   

The most common response to this lack of fulfillment is, unfortunately, to continue eating. As the cycle continues, subjects actually draw decreasing degrees of pleasure from the act of eating. While one might think that obese individuals simply enjoy eating more, the opposite appears to be true. They overeat to compensate for the fact that the food they expect to satisfy them does not. And so the rewards circuit so central to drug addiction operates in a near-identical fashion among the dangerously overweight. Like an addict perpetually trying to match his or her first “high” with increasing doses of the drug in question, the overeater chooses to counteract diminishing returns by eating more even though the food does not bring them the sense of satisfaction they crave. This pattern leads to deep addiction and possible overdose among drug users. For overeaters it facilitates obesity and its attendant health problems. The act of chasing satisfaction where it can’t be found only makes behaviors more extreme. 

Binge eating, which occurs in nearly 1 in 3 obese individuals, resembles the addiction model even more directly. The role of pleasure hormone dopamine in prompting sessions of overeating has been established – working on the initial expectation of pleasure, the “food addict,” an individual whose dopamine response system is probably inefficient by design, becomes irrationally compelled to continue eating. And the foods in question do not, for the most part, come from the produce aisle. Genetically inherited metabolic rates obviously play a part in determining body weight. But the most salient fact to be drawn from this study is that those whose dopamine systems derive less pleasure from the act of eating are usually heavier. It’s most positive conclusion: overeaters can benefit from the same kind of treatments offered to drug addicts. Unfortunately, abstinence is the most effective policy. The longer affected subjects stay away from rich foods, the less intense their cravings become. This is for the best, because milkshakes never truly satisfied in the first place.

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