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Obesity Categorized as Substance Abuse Problem

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Obesity related image Photo: Getty Images

There are a plethora of things in life we cannot control. Getting a flat tire, missing a connecting flight because our initial plane was delayed or even the unfortunate fate of coming down with an illness. Each day we encounter things outside the realm of our control.

It turns out, one thing society has told us for many years that we can control – our ability to eat healthy, reasonable portion-sized meals — may be a matter of latent neurological responses and not a conscious choice.

Researchers say that the same addictive responses that control the behavior of people with substance abuse problems can similarly trigger addictions to overeating.

Researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis published a study in early January, 2011 in The Archives of General Psychiatry. In the study, two separate surveys of 40,000 adults were conducted—the first in 1991 and 1992, the second a decade later in 2001-2002. The study set out to find a correlation between family history of alcoholism and obesity.

The first survey in the early 90's found no such thing. The second survey found something different.

According to the story written by Roni Caryn Rabin with the New York Times, “In 2001 and 2002, adults with a family history of alcoholism were 30 to 40 percent more likely to be obese than those with no alcoholism in the family. Women were at particularly high risk: they were almost 50 percent more likely to be obese if there was family alcoholism than if there wasn’t. (Men were 26 percent more likely to be obese.)”

So what changed over 10 years? Why now are we seeing family members with a history of alcoholism also struggling with obesity?

Richard A. Grucza, assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University and lead author of the new paper said, “Our so-called obesigenic, or obesity-inducing, food environment has changed in the decade between the two surveys. The most likely culprit, he said, ‘is the nature of the food we eat, and its tendency to appeal to the sorts of reward systems, which are the parts of the brain implicated in addiction.’”

Add a Comment4 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

Don't underestimate the power of fabricated food. The food industry has worked hard to design foods that more powerfully activate brain reward circuitry than foods available in the natural environment, not unlike the way the tobacco industry manipulated their product to produce maximal addictive effects. In neuroimaging studies, obese individuals and drug addicts display the same abnormalities in brain reward areas, and impaired function of a frontal lobe area needed to control cravings and impulses. The loss of control that drug and food addicts display is not due to choice or weakness; it is due to a brain disease that is at least partly, and in some cases perhaps wholly, acquired.

March 1, 2011 - 12:37pm
EmpowHER Guest

drug addicts arent obese, heroin addicts cant control what they do, but burger king addicts can, being obese may not be a choice, but staying obese definitely is, and its not my fault

February 1, 2011 - 4:14pm

It certainly brings to light and emphasizes just how important it is to have a healthy *lifestyle.* If we get started in the healthy lifestyle habits at a young age, we are more apt to train our bodies to crave and appreciate the healthy food/lifestyle options. Not to discredit any pshyiological functions that may tip us toward addictive behaviors, but as you said, healthy coping habits to begin with truly is key.

January 12, 2011 - 10:20am
EmpowHER Guest

Honestly, my take on this is that people who don't have healthy coping skills in place are more likely to turn to any number of things to help cope: alcohol, drugs, and overeating included. Many people use more than one thing to help cope.

January 12, 2011 - 6:57am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.


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