A study published from Scripps Research Institute shows that the same molecular mechanisms that push people into addiction, also exist with people that struggle with obesity and overeating.
According to researchers, this supports what many patients with obesity have been exclaiming for years – that it is very difficult to stop eating junk food regardless of their desires to stop it. Like drug addiction, individuals with obesity have a less-responsive reward center, explaining why individuals crave high-calorie diets and sugary foods.
“Junk Food” boosts dopamine (the primary neurotransmitter in addiction) and activates the reward center in a very similar way that drugs would. Additionally, research has shown that when addicts come off alcohol or drugs, they immediately start to crave sugary snack foods and sweets.1 This is because addiction, regardless of the drug of choice, is the same in the brain. It is really a chemical addiction. And the brain will often seek an alternative source, if the “drug of choice” isn’t available.
Eating sugary and high-calorie food can become compulsive. Paul Kenny, scientist of this research said that there are certainly addictive properties to snack foods and sweets.
“It presents the most thorough and compelling evidence that drug addiction and obesity are based on the same underlying neurobiological mechanisms. In the study, the animals completely lost control over their eating behavior, the primary hallmark of addiction. They continued to overeat even when they anticipated receiving electric shocks, highlighting just how motivated they were to consume the palatable food.” (Source: Paul Kenny / Scripps Research)
As part of this study, obese rats would always seek out the junk food, while the control group rats did not. When the junk food was removed from their cage and replaced by a nutritious diet, the obese rats refused to eat and “starved themselves for two weeks.”
These rats that showed a dramatic preference for junk food had a less-excitable reward system in their brain. By eating highly processed and sugary foods, it boosts chemicals in the brain and overstimulates the reward system, much like drugs do. After this repeated over-stimulation, the brain attempts to correct it by becoming less-responsive because it thinks it is producing too many chemicals. (Drug addicts know this process as: tolerance).
“The very next day after we provided access to the palatable food, their brains changed into a state that was consistent with an animal that had been overeating for several weeks. The animals also became compulsive in their eating behaviors almost immediately. These data are, as far as we know, the strongest support for the idea that overeating of palatable food can become habitual in the same manner and through the same mechanisms as consumption of drugs of abuse.” (Source: Paul Kenny / Scripps Research)