For Obese Americans, Food May Actually Be Addictive

September 1, 2015

“I’m addicted to these Cheetos,” exclaims the guy in the next cube. “These things are like crack to me!”

Maybe you’ve brushed off such declarations in the past as hyperbolic. But new research suggests that your coworker may be onto something—especially if he struggles with his weight. This week, scientists presented evidence that cravings may be hard-wired into the brain of overweight and obese people, creating a scenario similar to addictions to hard drugs like cocaine or heroin.

In the study, researchers offered snacks to 39 obese people and 42 individuals of normal weight, while at the same time showing them pictures of food. When the obese participants looked at the food photos, an MRI and neurological mapping revealed that in the obese individuals’ brains, there was a greater connectivity between the dorsal caudate and the somatosensory cortex—the parts of the brain controlling rewards-based habits and the energetic value of food. In other words, obese people showed a neurological reaction—a craving, if you will—for the snacks that did not occur with the normal-weight participants.

A hotly debated topic for years, brain scientists in the last decade or so have made several landmark discoveries suggesting that for the overweight and obese, eating well may not be as simple as making healthy choices. In May, a Dartmouth College study found that when overweight teenagers viewed food commercials, the regions of their brains that control pleasure, taste and the mouth were disproportionately stimulated.

And in his 2013 book Salt Sugar Fat: How The Food Giants Hooked Us, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss combined a historical look at the last century of food manufacturing with a damning glut of science to make the case that food companies have formulated fatty foods that are “so tasty, people can’t resist eating them,” thus rewiring the parts of our brains that register flavor.

By focusing its messaging on the need for a balance between exercise and caloric intake, the food industry would have us believe that blame for the obesity epidemic rests at the feet of individual consumers. Sure, retraining our brains to make healthy choices can play a huge role in improving our lives. But it seems that a genetic predisposition to junk food is also a factor here, and if mere images of certain snack foods can trigger a craving similar to those of drug addicts—when evidence exists that food companies know this and still cram their products with more addictive sugar, fat, and salt—we must call on corporations and the government to give us real food and stop preying on our addictions.

Photo credit: ShellyS via Flickr

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats, TakePart.com, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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