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Addicted to fat or sugar? It may as well be cocaine, study says

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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.

Add a Comment6 Comments

I absolutely LOVE to eat. I love food of all kinds. And - as is the case around the holidays - if it's there, I'll eat it. And I have 3 skinny boys in my house including my husband who ALL have a sweet tooth and LOVE chocolate anything. So, I have things in my house that, if it were only me, I probably wouldn't buy because I KNOW I'll eat them. Take chocolate Pop-Tarts, for example. We all love them. But, they're certainly NOT high on my list of low-fat, high fiber, healthy foods. So, I can say to myself, "I just won't eat them." Well, I can say that until I'm blue in the face. But, when my 5 year old eats 2/3 of one and wants to throw the rest of it away, what do I do? I EAT IT, OF COURSE. *sigh* ...Not to mention the ones I eat when nobody is looking... (Okay, there. I said it. I actually eat things when nobody is looking so I don't have to deal with their scrutiny. Wow. I almost said that out loud.)... Scary.

~ Janet - the-crazy-I-eat-everything-45-year-old... ;)

April 1, 2010 - 10:35am
(reply to RacerWife7)


Here's a big, big pat on the back for you. Sounds like it was really tough to admit that you eat food when no one's watching. I get you, girl. I've done it too, many times. But here's the thing I'm coming around to: if you're addicted to the fat or sugar in the products, that's part of the explanation for the eating, do you see? Our brains need more and more to feel satiated in those pleasure centers. It isn't about our stomachs at all. Which is why we can eat and have it not even register.

Don't be hard on yourself, RacerWife. Figure out a baby step that you can take -- note I said BABY STEP -- and try it. It may not be cutting something out. It may be ADDING something to your day that is good for you. If it's carbs that are regularly calling you to the kitchen, try string cheese and an apple or lean shaved turkey and mustard in a wheat tortilla instead for a snack. (You notice how we can eat an entire bag of chips without getting really full, but we get full on one chicken breast? That's the difference between empty carbs, and real protein.)

I'm working to tell myself these things even while I'm typing them to you. It's not easy!

April 2, 2010 - 9:23am

I think I need a detox program to enroll in... ;) The word "willpower" just isn't in my brain's vocabulary.

March 31, 2010 - 12:25pm
(reply to RacerWife7)

Oh, I hear you!!! The problem with food addiction, of course, unlike other addictions, is that we can't simply STOP eating. Alcoholics can stop drinking, drug addicts can stop using drugs. But we have to learn to live with food every day.

I think the key to the fat and sugar thing is to realize that people in these companies WANT you to overeat. They want you to supersize your fries, reach for the pack of 4 Reese's bars instead of 2, and order the pasta plate that is overflowing. It's all in the name of profit. And it gets you addicted to sugar or fat -- not unlike the way tobacco companies knew people would get addicted to tobacco -- and after that, we eat compulsively.

I don't think it's a question of willpower, RacerWife7. I think it's a question of taking back our control. And we can only do that one step at a time.

What are you most "addicted" to? What do you find it hardest to resist?

April 1, 2010 - 9:27am

OMG... this article describes me to a "T". So, HOW do we go about fixing what's wrong in my brain????

March 30, 2010 - 12:59pm
(reply to RacerWife7)


Me, too! When I was researching and writing it, I was doubly interested because everything the research found was what I have experienced in my own life.

I am starting with two things:
1. Trying to be conscious about all my eating. Instead of just eating because I'm bored, or need something to do, or am happy, or sad, or angry, etc, I am going to try to be conscious of when and why I'm in the kitchen looking for food. And if I'm not actually hungry, I'm going to try to find another substitute.
2. I'm trying to make better choices. I'm now seeing that the food industry would really LIKE me to just eat as much fat and sugar as they can ram down my throat. They WANT me to super-size. They WANT me to buy the same products over and over again. They WANT the ingredients in their products to increase my need to consume them. Well, I don't want that. So whenever I can, I'm now going to try to make a better decision. I'll try to steer away from the sweet and fat foods, and go for something more natural -- fruit, vegetables, cheese, lean protein. It's not nearly as much fun as chips or candy. But right now I'm pretty mad at the chips and the candy, so I'm hoping to learn from this and change my habits for good.

How about you, RacerWife?

March 31, 2010 - 10:35am
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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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