Food Cravings In Obese People Affect Brain In Manner Similar To Drug Addiction

By McCarton Ackerman 09/02/15

Researchers hope their findings will lead to helping people manage their obesity.

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The compulsive eating habits often found in obese people are typically blamed on a lack of self-control, but new findings show that food cravings may rewire their brains in a manner similar to drug addiction.

The study came from a collaborative team of researchers from the University of Granada in Spain and Monash University in Australia. The scientists laid out a buffet of food for 39 obese individuals and 42 people at a normal weight. After participants ate whatever they wanted from the buffet, their brains were scanned in a functional MRI machine.

These scans showed that the obese individuals had stronger connections than the normal-weight individuals between their dorsal caudate (responsible for reward-based habits) and somatosensory cortex (responsible for measuring the energy value of food).

Meanwhile, the normal-weight participants had stronger connections between the ventral putamen (responsible for evaluating flavors) and the orbitofrontal cortex (responsible for decision making). The neural changes in the obese individuals are similar to what often occurs in the brains of drug addicts.

"Even though we associate significant health hazards in taking drugs like cocaine and morphine, high-fat/high-sugar foods may present even more of a danger because of their accessibility and affordability,” said one of the study’s co-authors in a statement.

Lead author Oren Contreras-Rodriguez, a cognitive psychology researcher at the University of Granada, said the next step is using these findings to conduct further research in helping to manage obesity. He suggested that pharmacotherapies and brain stimulation techniques “might help control food intake in clinical situations.”

Obese individuals have also gotten some additional help this year in tackling weight loss when the FDA approved a new injectable weight loss drug. Saxenda, a formulation of Novo Nordisk’s diabetes drug, liraglutide, was approved for use in January for patients with a body mass index of 30 or higher and with at least one weight-related health condition.

A study involving Saxenda found that half the patients lost at least 5% of their body weight, compared to 2-5% by its competitors.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.