To the food lovers who can't deny themselves an extra cookie (or 10): The problem may begin in your brain, where, scientists say, chemical surges affect your response to food, much in the way an addict responds to alcohol or drugs.
The possibility of food addiction has existed for some time. A new Yale study gives it a boost. In that research, scientists watched the brain activity of women tantalized, and then rewarded, with a chocolate milkshake. Their neural activity was similar to that of drug addicts, scientists said, as brain imaging showed activity surging in regions that govern cravings and falling off in those centers that curb urges.
High-fat and high-sugar foods tend to trigger the strongest reward responses in the brain, said the researchers, a feature that once would have helped our species survive. In America today, we don’t have as much of a problem finding high-calorie food.
Here, essentially, is what occurs in the brain of a drug abuser. Most abused drugs work by flooding the brain’s circuits with the feel-good chemical dopamine. The feeling is pleasurable, so the body wants to get the high again. But abused drugs overload the brain’s circuits, sometimes with two to 10 times as much dopamine as is derived from natural feel-good activities such as eating and sex. The brain adjusts to the overwhelming amount of dopamine, so the user needs more of the drug to achieve the same result.