What makes some people overeat while others manage to control their eating?
Why do some people become addicted to food the way others become addicted to drugs?
At least part of the explanation may lie in the chemical reactions taking place in the brain. A series of experiments with rodents, reported in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, sheds some new light on the subject.
Exposure to sugary foods tests impulsivity
Researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine exposed rats — some of which were bred to be impulsive — to a high-sugar diet for one hour each day. The researchers found that the rats with greater impulsivity were the first to adopt binge-eating behaviors. These rats exhibited stronger cravings for sugary foods.
Rats with greater impulsiveness were found to have Delta-FosB increases in the brain region associated with reward and impulsivity in the face of highly sugared food options. What this means is that food addiction (binge eating) may follow a similar biochemical pattern to drug use and addiction. Brains that demonstrate heightened impulsiveness are more vulnerable to behaviors that lead down a path of addiction. This can happen with food or with drugs.
The researchers suggest that our ancient predecessors may have benefited from impulsivity. In the face of food scarcity, eating high-calories foods whenever they were available would have been a helpful trait. However, in modern culture, where food scarcity is not an issue, that same impulsiveness can work as a risk factor for binge eating and food addiction.
It is now believed that the reward stimulation from consuming pleasurable foods can be stronger and louder than messages of satiation. And, as with drug addiction, people who binge with food can develop a tolerance, which means that they will eat more in search of the elusive reward trigger.
Warning signs of food addiction
Symptoms of food addiction include:
- You eat more than you intend to eat
- You eat even when you are not hungry
- You eat until you feel sick
- You worry about not being able to eat specific kinds of food
- You go out of your way to obtain those kinds of food
The conclusion for humans? Food addiction may be less of an issue of wrong behavior as it is an issue of cellular activity inside the brain.