Monday, August 21, 2006

Addicted to Food? Brain scan suggests it's very possible.

Today's Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Free registration required) has a fascinating article on obesity and food addiction.
"Science suggests that you can be hooked on chocolate, cookies and chips. Recently, high-tech medical scans have revealed surprising similarities in the brain chemistry of drug addicts and chronic overeaters -- resemblances that have caught the attention of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Here, the latest evidence, plus a program for regaining control. Addiction and obesity both run in families, and experts believe that genetic components account for at least some of a person's vulnerability. But animal research also suggests that the environment -- mainly, how often you're exposed to an addictive substance -- can shift brain neurochemistry, increasing the likelihood of addiction. [Snip]

...research at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York suggests they may be missing something else instead: adequate brain receptors for dopamine, a chemical that is part of the brain's motivation and reward system. One hint that environment plays a role comes from studies in which animals were repeatedly given cocaine: Frequent use actually decreased the number of dopamine receptors, says Dr. Gene-Jack Wang of Brookhaven, leader of a series of studies investigating the brain chemistry of chronic overeaters. In fact, he says, the brains of obese people and drug addicts look strikingly similar: "Both have fewer dopamine receptors than normal subjects."

If that's the case, we live in an environment perfectly designed to nurture food addictions. For decades, food-industry scientists have been working hard to figure out how better to hook people, says Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in Derby, Conn., and author of The Flavor Point Diet. Manufacturers now excel at hitting the sweet spot -- making us crave more and more of a food.

"In a supermarket recently, I actually found a pasta sauce that, serving for serving, contained more sugar than a chocolate fudge sauce, though the sweetness was hidden because the pasta sauce was so salty," Katz says. "The question is, why would anybody pour a packet of sugar over their pasta? And the answer is that if you get used to that much sugar, another pasta sauce will taste too bland. The food industry wants us to need more and more of the substance to feel satisfied, so we'll go out and buy more and more of it."

Animal research at Princeton University has also shown that the way you indulge may have consequences. Dr. Bart Hoebel, a professor of psychology, placed rats on an alternating schedule of 12 hours with no food, followed by 12 hours of access to both rat chow and a solution of 10 percent sugar, which is about as sweet as a soft drink -- a pattern that results in binge eating. As the days went by, the rats began upping their intake of the sugar solution, drinking more and more at a time. Hoebel found that after about a month, the rats' brains were producing surges of dopamine during their binges.

"In rats, binge eating promotes addiction, just like binge drinking promotes alcohol addiction," Hoebel says. "It's possible that repeatedly bingeing on sweets could actually change the circuitry of your brain" -- and make you want ever-increasing amounts.

Researchers aren't ready to declare the case closed on the causes of our collective weight problem."
The article goes on to provide a program designed to reduce overeating.

The key is that 1. our environment is designed to make us want to overeat (Well, Duh) 2. Such overeating can lead to a food addiction (This is a bit surprising) and 3. (the really interesting part of this article) someone addicted to overeating tends to have a reduced number of Dopamine receptors in their brain reward system very much like people addicted to drugs such as cocaine. There is also a 4. and that is that the addictiveness of food grows less quickly than does addiction to cocaine. But that merely suggests it is rather like addiction to alcohol.

Food sales people are out to get us hooked. It means more money to them. It is hard to walk down a supermarket isle while being aware of the marketing techniques that are being used there and also ignore that this is a fact. Why are salted snacks so expensive? They are mildly addictive. Why do the best selling soda waters all have caffeine in them? Because caffeine is addictive. So is sugar. That's also why fast foods which are fried sell better than submarine sandwiches. Fat is a big addictor. These are sort of low-level addictions, but enough so that they cause us to choose the "better" (that is, the addictive products) over the ones which are not similarly designed to attract our attention. These addictions also seem to cause us to eat more of the addictive foods.

And don't try to tell me you haven't gotten lazy, bought a large bag of Fritos corn chips or salted tortilla chips along with a large can or jar of dip and eaten that instead of a decent supper. Most of us have.

Just remember, this research rather strongly suggests that these decisions are being hard-wired into your brain. As the dopamine receptors are reduced in number, it becomes more difficult to get the same amount of satisfaction from the same amount of addictive foods, so you get either more of them or you switch to stronger ones. What was that old advertisement for Lay's potato chips? Bet you can't eat just one! wasn't it? They weren't lying to us. Odds were on their side, and this research shows why.

It is known that cocaine addicts require more and more coke to get the same high. Or ask Rush Limbaugh about whether the same amount of OxyContin continues to provide the same high, or whether you need more and more. Now consider this process also working with fattening foods.

Anyone who has ever given up red meat will tell you how addictive that stuff is. Without the fat, you don't feel full, no matter how much rabbit food you have eaten. It is the reason most people cannot become vegetarians. Army soldiers who were advisors to the South Vietnames Army discovered this within days of leaving American foods.

This is an area of research to follow. It could largely restructure how Americans eat, meaning changing food distribution and restaurants.

Just remember, those industries will fight back, and this research could well disappear. There are fortunes on line here. What does public health matter when money can be lost by wealthy people?

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