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A new study details how our brains are wired to crave certain foods

By Casey Thaler, B.A., NASM-CPT, FNS
May 14, 2020
A new study details how our brains are wired to crave certain foods image

When we hear the word addiction, many of us think of severe, negative outcomes: drug addiction, alcoholism, even workaholic tendencies. Food, by contrast, is rarely thought of in this same light. The truth is, especially when it is highly processed, highly sweetened food, it can be as addictive as many drugs.

Not surprisingly, researchers have found that Oreo cookies may be as addictive as cocaine when it comes to rewarding the brain’s pleasure circuits.[1]These neural networks handle the emotions of reward and pleasure. Think of them as a set of lights: They can be turned on, but their default position is off. When you consume alcohol, take drugs, or consume a lot of sugar, for example, the response inside the brain is very similar. The “lights” get switched on.

Drugs and alcohol have self-limiting mechanisms—take too many drugs or drink too much alcohol, and you will experience many adverse side effects. You will also suffer social problems, whether marital, familial, or professional. Thus, social norms prevent us from over-consuming these substances. Likewise, if we ignore the initial side-effects and continue over-consuming, our bodies have several unpleasant ways to tell us to stop.

Food has very few such self-limiting mechanisms. You can eat all day, every day, and there is nothing besides a weak satiety signal stopping you from doing so. In fact, since eating is required for survival, there are reward mechanisms for periodically over-consuming. Furthermore, there is no social penalty—overeating is practically encouraged at family gatherings and parties, for example. Yet it is a very dangerous game to play, once you realize that food is addictive.

Foods might not be acutely toxic, but over time,constant over-eating can cause significant damage. There is an obvious reason why 40 percent of the country is now obese. Few people have stated the obvious: In simple terms, Americans are eating too much, and many people are addicted to food.

A new study presents a greater understanding of the mechanism behind food addiction, concluding for the first time that there are a specific set of brain cells that, once activated, make us more impulsive around food.[2]

Using a rat model, the researchers at the University of Georgia focused on a subset of brain cells that produce a type of transmitter called melanin concentrating hormone (MCH).While previous research has shown that elevating MCH levels in the brain can increase food intake, this study is the first to show that MCH also plays a role in impulsive behavior.

To test a rat’s impulsivity, researchers trained the animals to press a lever to receive what was described as a "delicious, high-fat, high-sugar" pellet. However, the rat had to wait 20 seconds between lever presses. If the rat was too impulsive and pressed the lever too soon, it had to wait an additional 20 seconds.

Researchers then activated a specific MCH neural pathway from the hypothalamus to the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved with learning and memory function.The results, concluded the researchers,suggested MCH doesn't affect how much the animals liked the food or how hard they were willing to work for the food. Rather, the circuit acted on the animals'ability to stop themselves from trying to get the food.

The study provides further evidence of how poorly we regulate our cravings, particularly when the opportunity arises to consume junk food. And when you consider that many of us encounter these overly sweetened foods every day at convenience stores, grocery stores, and elsewhere,the ramifications are concerning.

The connection between food, particularly sugar, and addictive behavior also has been highlighted in popular media.The New York Times recently referenced a study on rats: “Princeton University and University of Florida researchers have found that sugar-binging rats show signs of opiate-like withdrawal when their sugar is taken away—including chattering teeth, tremoring forepaws, and the shakes. When the rats were allowed to resume eating sugar two weeks later, they pressed the food lever so frantically that they consumed 23 percent more than before.” This sentence should be disturbing to readers.

An area of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens is largely responsible for the reward response to food. There has been much research into the possibility that by rewiring this portion of the brain, we can control our weight. The truth is, of course, that we already have control over our decisions. Through personal responsibility and discipline, we have as much control as we need to make healthier choices. Unfortunately, many of us continue to make poor decisions when it comes to the foods we eat.

Why is that?

While pizza tastes good and can be responsibly consumed periodically, when eaten regularly, it can elicit more troubling outcomes.The more rewarding foods we consume, the more likely we are to consume other rewarding foods. This is similar to the phenomenon seen in drug usage, where one drug serves as a“gateway drug” to stronger substances.Thus, pizza or soda could be seen as“gateway” foods.Manufacturers are aware of this fact and, indeed, take advantage of that idea.

While using pharmaceuticals to alter our brain activity and reduce cravings has some appeal, there are very serious ethical and moral considerations. For example, is it appropriate to use psychoactive drugs so that some people are less likely to over-eat? Do we so deeply lack the self-control needed to reduce obesity rates from that 40-percent mark?

Instead, can we simply choose better foods with enormous benefits and virtually no side effects? Some of the best strategies to stay away from addictive foods include using wholesome Paleo recipes, choosing healthier cookbooks, and avoiding processed foods and sugars. If something comes in a can, in a bottle, or in a shrink-wrapped package, odds are you would be better off not eating it. Cooking for yourself is also far cheaper, so doing so will make you healthier and save you money. That’s a true win-win.

By having a plan—whether it be diet, exercise, or both—it’s far easier to stay away from addictive foods.

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