Addicted to food? Experts Say Chronic Overeaters Could be.

Addicted to food? Experts Say Chronic Overeaters Could be.

Science suggests that you can be hooked on chocolate, cookies and chips. Recently, high-tech medical scans have revealed surprising similarities in the brain chemistry of drug addicts and chronic overeaters -- resemblances that have caught the attention of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Here, the latest evidence, plus a program for regaining control. Addiction and obesity both run in families, and experts believe that genetic components account for at least some of a person's vulnerability. But animal research also suggests that the environment -- mainly, how often you're exposed to an addictive substance -- can shift brain neurochemistry, increasing the likelihood of addiction.


People who eat compulsively have long been accused of lacking willpower. But research at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York suggests they may be missing something else instead: adequate brain receptors for dopamine, a chemical that is part of the brain's motivation and reward system. One hint that environment plays a role comes from studies in which animals were repeatedly given cocaine: Frequent use actually decreased the number of dopamine receptors, says Dr. Gene-Jack Wang of Brookhaven, leader of a series of studies investigating the brain chemistry of chronic overeaters. In fact, he says, the brains of obese people and drug addicts look strikingly similar: "Both have fewer dopamine receptors than normal subjects."

If that's the case, we live in an environment perfectly designed to nurture food addictions. For decades, food-industry scientists have been working hard to figure out how better to hook people, says Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in Derby, Conn., and author of The Flavor Point Diet. Manufacturers now excel at hitting the sweet spot -- making us crave more and more of a food.

"In a supermarket recently, I actually found a pasta sauce that, serving for serving, contained more sugar than a chocolate fudge sauce, though the sweetness was hidden because the pasta sauce was so salty," Katz says. "The question is, why would anybody pour a packet of sugar over their pasta? And the answer is that if you get used to that much sugar, another pasta sauce will taste too bland. The food industry wants us to need more and more of the substance to feel satisfied, so we'll go out and buy more and more of it."

Animal research at Princeton University has also shown that the way you indulge may have consequences. Dr. Bart Hoebel, a professor of psychology, placed rats on an alternating schedule of 12 hours with no food, followed by 12 hours of access to both rat chow and a solution of 10 percent sugar, which is about as sweet as a soft drink -- a pattern that results in binge eating. As the days went by, the rats began upping their intake of the sugar solution, drinking more and more at a time. Hoebel found that after about a month, the rats' brains were producing surges of dopamine during their binges.

"In rats, binge eating promotes addiction, just like binge drinking promotes alcohol addiction," Hoebel says. "It's possible that repeatedly bingeing on sweets could actually change the circuitry of your brain" -- and make you want ever-increasing amounts.

Researchers aren't ready to declare the case closed on the causes of our collective weight problem.

"The research is interesting, but I'd never say that people who struggle with food and weight issues are addicted in a clinical sense," says Dr. Martin Binks, director of behavioral health at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center. "The evidence just isn't there. And the implication is that if you have an eating problem, you're destined to lose control -- there's nothing you can do."

While it may feel at times like a runaway train, how you eat isn't out of your control, says dietitian Susan McQuillan, author of Breaking the Bonds of Food Addiction.

How to get back on track

  1. Don't go cold turkey. Although treatment for life-threatening drug or alcohol addiction generally requires abstinence, an all-or-nothing approach is impossible for food addicts -- everyone has to eat. Besides, some weight-loss experts believe that rigid thinking can make you crave an offending food more than ever.
  2. Control your home environment. Just as someone with an alcohol problem shouldn't buy a magnum of champagne, you shouldn't overstock your kitchen, says Dr. Mark Gold, chief of addiction medicine at the University of Florida College of Medicine. "You have to assume that every food or drink you buy will end up in your mouth. You'll see a TV commercial or some other trigger, and that food will end up in your mouth."
  3. Temper temptation. Sometimes it's not just a food that sets you off but also the place in which you eat it -- and that's why putting yourself in a situation where you used to eat excessively can be a recipe for trouble. Ex-drug addicts face this problem all the time, says Dr. Marcia Levin Pelchat, a research scientist at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. "Going back to the old neighborhood often triggers a strong craving," she says. Similarly, the sight of the bakery where you used to buy brownies might melt your resolve. So shake up your routine. If you always have ice cream while watching TV, read a book instead -- or knit to keep your hands busy as you watch TV.
  4. Retrain your brain. In order to be satisfied with two cookies instead of an entire bag, you need to change the way your brain sees food on the plate, Gold says. First, switch to smaller plates and bowls to automatically reduce portion sizes. Next, leave more space on the plate by again reducing the amount of food. Each step may take several weeks to feel comfortable.
  5. Adjust your taste buds. One of the best ways to gain control over your eating is to restore your sensitivity to flavors, says Dr. David L. Katz, author of The Flavor Point Diet. You can do it without depriving yourself: If sugar is your downfall, keep sugar cookies in your diet, but when picking prepared foods that aren't supposed to be sweet such as pasta sauce, bread and chips, look for ones without added sweeteners. Check ingredient labels. Be forewarned: You'll have to maintain vigilance. "Taste buds are very adaptive little fellows," Katz says. "If you let extra sugar and fat into your diet, you could be lured back into your old patterns."
  6. Exercise regularly. Milky Ways and Big Macs aren't the only things that satisfy the pleasure centers of your brain -- so does exercise. In animals, at least, research has found that it increases dopamine levels and raises the number of dopamine receptors in the brain.
  7. Learn to eat only when you're hungry. One classic tool that weight-loss experts use to teach people how to better manage their appetite is the hunger scale. The scale ranges from 0 to 10, with 0 being ravenously hungry and 10 being overstuffed. Eat when you begin to feel hungry -- 2 or 3 on the scale -- and stop when you feel comfortably satisfied -- 5 or 6. Though it's obvious that you don't want to eat to an overstuffed 10, using the scale to gauge when you should start munching is important, too: If you wait until you're at 0, you may eat all the way up to 10.
  8. Deal with your emotions. Even if a brain scan were to show that you have a physiological basis for food addiction, it's likely that there would be an emotional element, too. It's important to stop using food to cope with your feelings. This can mean getting better at tolerating sensations of sadness, anger, or boredom, rather than rushing to soothe them with food. Sometimes it means asking what you need to make your life better.

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