Is Your Appetite Out of Control?
This Is Your Brain on Food
Experts are just now beginning to understand that for people like Angela, the compulsion to overeat starts in the head, not in the stomach. "We've discovered that they have abnormalities in certain brain circuits that are similar to those of substance abusers," says Nora D. Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. For example, a study showed that morbidly obese people may, like drug addicts, have fewer receptors in their brains for dopamine, a chemical that produces feelings of well-being and satisfaction. As a result, food addicts may need more of a pleasurable experience -- such as dessert -- to feel good. They also have trouble resisting temptations.
"Many talk about craving food; about overdoing it despite the fact that they know how bad it is for their health; about withdrawal symptoms like headaches if they stop eating certain things, like high-sugar sweets," says Chris E. Stout, executive director of practice and outcomes at Timberline Knolls, a treatment center outside Chicago that helps women overcome eating disorders. And like an alcoholic, a food addict will do anything to get a fix. "We often hear about patients stashing cookies in their shoes, their cars, even in the rafters of their basement," says Stout.
It turns out that the brain's role in deciding what and how much we eat goes beyond what most scientists ever imagined. In a groundbreaking new study at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory, principal investigator Gene-Jack Wang, MD, and his team found that when an obese person is full, different areas of her brain, including a region called the hippocampus, react in a way that's surprisingly similar to what happens when a substance abuser is shown pictures of drug paraphernalia. This is significant because the hippocampus is not only in charge of our emotional responses and memory but also plays a role in how much food we eat. According to Dr. Wang, this means that instead of telling us to eat only when we're hungry, our brains do a more complex calculation: They take into account how stressed out or grumpy we are, the size of our last snack and how good it made us feel, and the comfort we've gotten in the past from eating certain foods. The next thing you know, a person prone to overeating is wolfing down a carton of ice cream and a bag of chips.
For Angela Wichmann, it was emotional upset that led to her binges: "I did it to numb myself when things got me down, like relationships, school, work, and the way I could never seem to keep my weight steady," she says. Two years ago, Angela joined a self-help group for overeaters and lost nearly 30 pounds; she now weighs 146. (For more about such groups, see "Hungry for Help," page 5.) Amy Jones, 23, of West Hollywood, California, says her urge to eat was motivated by boredom, tension, and obsessive thoughts. "I couldn't stop thinking about the food I wanted until I ate it," explains Amy, who considers herself addicted to cheese, pepperoni, and cheesecake -- foods her mother strictly prohibited when she was an overweight teen.
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