A High-Fat Diet In Childhood Might Lay the Groundwork For Addiction

By Britni de la Cretaz 06/01/17

In a new study, researchers examined how the adolescent diet may affect a person's predisposition to addiction.

a young boy biting into a chicken sandwich.

As the addiction crisis rages on, researchers are committed to learning as much as they can about what causes addiction. Science still doesn’t have answers, but it is making some headway.

A new study in eNeuro explores how consumption of a high-fat diet in childhood and adolescence affects dopamine receptors. The study found that even a single exposure to an amphetamine in rats that were exposed to a high-fat diet is enough to trigger a dopamine sensitization—making them more at-risk for pursuing reward-based behavior, like addiction.

In a lab, rats were fed either a typical diet, or one that was high in fat when they were young. Their reactions to amphetamine, a stimulant that affects the dopamine system was tested. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in pleasure-seeking, reward, and decision-making.

Researchers found that upon a second exposure to amphetamine, the rats who had been fed a high-fat diet showed more locomotor behavior, which suggests that they had been sensitized to the substance. This difference also appeared in the dopamine function of cells in other areas in the rats’ brains—specifically in regions known to play a role in addiction, the ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens.

If these findings hold in humans, it could mean a better understanding of how diet early in life could ultimately affect someone’s predisposition to addiction. But what someone eats in childhood does not exist in a vacuum; it’s also important to understand that poverty and other economic factors play a role in what kinds of food families have access to and can afford. 

These findings might also help us understand why people who live in poverty are more likely to struggle with addiction. It might also mean that combating the addiction crisis looks like doing more than just providing access to treatment and prevention programs, but fighting food insecurity, food deserts in low-income neighborhoods, and increasing programming that provides public benefits like SNAP.

Of course, none of these findings suggest causation at this point. And, while studies have shown that Oreos are like drugs to the brain, still other studies have suggested that cheese is more addictive than crack. Basically, no one really knows anything just yet, only that science is just beginning to understand how addiction works in our brains.

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.