Losing weight. The theory is simple – take in fewer calories than you burn and you’ll lose weight. The reality is a completely different scenario. People struggle their entire lives to reach or stay at a specific body weight. Perhaps there’s more to the theory than meets the eye?
Those of you who watch “The Biggest Loser” have seen the emotional breakdowns that host Jillian Michaels stirs up in her contestants. She repeatedly stresses that a person cannot get healthy until they deal with whatever’s going on in their head. These breakdowns are often the turning point for contestants on the show.
New research from the field of neuroscience (the study of the brain) suggests that Michaels may be right. We simply can’t discount the important role of the brain in losing weight.
High-calorie Foods Can be Addictive
In some ways, high-calorie foods such as milkshakes, burgers and cheesecake are very similar to alcohol, cigarettes and cocaine. When we ingest (or inhale) any of these compounds, our brain releases a chemical called dopamine. This chemical is what allows us to experience pleasure. When your brain releases dopamine, it attributes this feeling of pleasure to your behavior (for example, eating a bacon double-cheeseburger). This connection can strengthen the pathways in your brain associated with that behavior and over time, it becomes a habit. And as we all know, habits can be very difficult to break.
Another complication is that your brain can become desensitized to dopamine. When this happens, you need to release more dopamine in order to feel the same amount of pleasure. A great analogy would be your tolerance to alcohol – the more often you drink, the more alcohol you need to drink to experience that “buzz”. The desensitization of your brain to dopamine is a fundamental concept in addiction. Research suggests that for some individuals, overeating is very much an addiction.
Scientists began to study the effect of high-calorie foods on the brain using rats. One study looked at three groups of rats: rats with access to high-calorie human foods (e.g., cheesecake) for 18 to 23 hours a day; rats with access to cheesecake for only one hour a day; and rats who did not receive any access to cheesecake. All three groups also had access to their regular healthy rat chow.
The rats with access to the cheesecake quickly became obese and avoided their healthy rat chow. Rats with access to the cheesecake for only one hour began to exhibit binge eating. Rats with continual access to the high-calorie human food rapidly developed a de-sensitization to dopamine. These rats were so addicted to cheesecake that they would continue to eat it even when they were faced with negative reinforcements, such as a mild shock to their paws. If researchers tried to remove the cheesecake and reintroduce the healthy chow, the rats would refuse to eat for an average of 14 days!
Not everyone is going to become addicted to high-calorie foods, just like not everyone will become addicted to alcohol or cigarettes or other drugs. Some people may be more at risk of developing an addiction to high-calorie foods – either because of genetics or because of how they respond to dopamine. For these people, a simple regimen of diet and exercise may not be enough. They may need additional help to break the addiction – support groups, therapy or a new hobby that can help take their minds off of the food.
Why Do We Over-Eat?
A more controversial view of over-eating still needs to be validated with additional research. However, it raises some interesting questions about the link between obesity and the brain.
Dr. Amen of the University of California at Irvine is a neuroscientist who studies brain activity. Through his research, he identified several types of brain patterns associated with over-eating. According to Dr. Amen, each of these over-eaters would benefit from a different type of diet. The Compulsive Eater: The compulsive eater gets stuck on the thought of food and feels the compulsive need to eat. They’re typically night-time eaters because they worry and have trouble sleeping. Caffeine and diet pills make them anxious and therefore should be avoided. The compulsive eater may benefit most from a healthy carbohydrate plan, such as Weight Watchers.
The Impulsive Eater: The impulsive eater reaches for food without even thinking about it. They have poor impulse control and get distracted very easily. The impulsive eater may benefit from a high-protein, low-carb diet. The Emotional Eater: The emotional eater uses food to medicate feelings of sadness and to calm down. They may also be more likely to gain weight in the winter. The emotional eater needs to incorporate healthy fats, protein and carbs into his or her diet.
The Anxious Eater:The anxious eater uses food to medicate feelings of anxiety and/or nervousness. They often also suffer from headaches and stomach problems. The anxious eater may benefit most from a diet consisting mainly of whole foods and vegetables. Understanding why we over-eat is an important first step for identifying how we can stop. As researchers continue to answer these important questions, the hope is to create a weight loss strategy that addresses all the variables – from caloric intake and expenditure to changing your brain and behavior.