If you are an emotional eater, pay attention: A new study says that eating lots of high-calorie, high-fat or high-sugar foods trigger the same areas of our brain that drugs like cocaine or heroin do, and actually can trigger food addictions and compulsive eating.
The research, which was done with rats and published in this week’s Nature Neuroscience, was studying obesity and how to treat it. It found that rats who were fed a healthy diet but also allowed all the high-calorie food they wanted soon developed a preference for the high-calorie food, became obese and turned into compulsive eaters with addiction-like responses in their brains.
The researchers also found that levels of a brain chemical that allows us to feel reward – a specific dopamine receptor – were lower in the overweight rats. This same condition was found in humans addicted to drugs.
If you find yourself constantly craving and eating food that you barely taste and aren’t really hungry for, this may be an explanation.
Doing drugs such as cocaine and eating too much junk food both gradually overload the so-called pleasure centers in the brain, lead researcher Paul J. Kenny, Ph.D., an associate professor of molecular therapeutics at the Scripps Research Institute, in Jupiter, Florida, told CNN. Eventually the pleasure centers "crash," and achieving the same pleasure – or even just feeling normal – requires increasing amounts of the drug or food, he said.
"People know intuitively that there's more to [overeating] than just willpower," he says. "There's a system in the brain that's been turned on or over-activated, and that's driving [overeating] at some subconscious level."
An estimated two-thirds of American adults and a third of American children are overweight or obese today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More from the Reuters story:
"Obesity may be a form of compulsive eating. Other treatments in development for other forms of compulsion, for example drug addiction, may be very useful for the treatment of obesity," Kenny told Reuters news service.