Transcript: Are Fatty Foods Addictive?
The food industry, like the tobacco companies and other drug lords, have been able to come up with products that tap into that same dopamine reward system. Why a picture of a cheeseburger rather than sugary soda pop?Well now we know fat may have similar effects on the brain as well. You feed some people some yogurt packed with butter fat, and within 30 minutes you start see the same changes in brain activity you get when you drink sugar water.
People who regularly eat ice cream—sugar and fat—have a deadened dopamine response in their brains to drinking a milkshake. It's like when drug abusers have to use more and more to get the same high. Frequent ice cream consumption is related to a reduction in reward-region responsivity in humans—they're talking about the pleasure center, paralleling the tolerance observed in drug addiction. Once you've so dulled your dopamine response, you may subsequently overeat in an effort to achieve the degree of satisfaction experienced previously, which contributes to unhealthy weight gain.
What do fatty/sugary foods have in common? They are energy-dense foods. It may be less about the number of calories than their concentration. Consumption of a calorie dense diet compared to the same number calories in a calorie dilute diet leads to that numbing of the dopamine response. It's like the difference between cocaine and crack. Same stuff chemically, but by smoking crack cocaine we can deliver a higher dose quicker to our brain.
As an aside I found it interesting that the control drink in these milkshake studies wasn't just water. They can't use water because our brain actually tastes water on the tongue—I didn't know that. So they had to use artificial saliva, they made people drink a solution designed to mimic the natural taste of saliva—ew!
Anyway, with this new understanding of the neural correlates of food addiction, there've been calls to include obesity as an official mental disorder. After all, both obesity and addiction share the inability to restrain behavior in spite of an awareness of detrimental health consequences. That's one of the defining criteria of substance abuse. You keep putting crap in your body despite the knowledge that you have a problem that is likely caused by the crap, yet you can't stop.
Redefining obesity as an addiction, a psychiatric disease, would be a boon to the drug companies that are already working on a whole bunch of drugs to muck with our brain chemistry. For example, you give people an opiate blocker like they do for people with heroine overdoses to block the effects of the drug, and people eat significantly less cheese. Just doesn't do as much for them any more.
Rather than taking drugs, though, we can prevent the deadening of our pleasure center in the first place by sticking to foods that are naturally calorically dilute, like whole plant foods. This can help bring back our dopamine sensitivity such that we can again derive the same pleasure from the simplest of foods. And this is not just for people who are obese. Yes, when we regularly eat calorie dense animal and junk foods like ice cream we can so blunt our pleasure that we may overeat to compensate, but when our brain down-regulates dopamine receptors to deal with all these jolts of fat and sugar we may experience less enjoyment from other activities as well.
That's why cocaine addicts may have an impaired neurological capacity to enjoy sex, why smokers also have an impaired ability to respond to positive stimuli. Since these all involve the same dopamine pathways cover, what we put into our body--what we eat--can affect how we experience all of life's pleasures.
So to live life to the fullest, what’s the solution? The food industry, according to some addiction specialists, should be given incentives to develop low calorie foods that are more attractive, palatable, and affordable so that people can adhere to diet programs for a long time. No need! Mother nature beat them to it.
To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Ariel Levitsky.
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