Archive for the ‘Brain & appetite’ Category

Annoyed woman So I’ll bet you heard the news. A professor and some of his students found that Oreos are “just as addictive as cocaine” in rats.

Why is this annoying? For one, it’s not particularly innovative … research like this has been done (and done better) years ago.

For another, it’s misleading. As Emily Deans pointed out yesterday on Twitter:

just because a substance hits the pleasure centers doesn’t mean ‘as addictive as cocaine.’

Or as Yoni Freedhoff pointed out on his blog this morning:

Putting aside any concerns with experimental methodologies, if our pleasures centres didn’t light up like Christmas trees when faced with sugars and fats then I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t be over 7 billion of us walking the planet, because up until only about a millisecond or so in the grand scheme of time, those who were more driven to eat were the only ones who survived.

Understanding our brain’s reward system is important, but it’s also important not to overstate the case and, like some, conflate normal behavior with addiction.


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Sigh. I’ve been known to dabble in hyperbole now and then, but this August 2nd tweet from Mark Hyman — who is leveraging the concept of “diabesity” to sell books on PBS and elsewhere — pissed me off.

I’m a food addict. We all are.

In the article linked in the tweet, Hyman writes:

I’m a food addict. We all are. Our brains are biologically driven to seek and devour high-calorie, fatty foods.

Well, pardon my french, but this is bullshit. Being “biologically driven to seek and devour high-calorie, fatty foods” may be something (I think it’s called evolution), but it is most definitely NOT addiction.


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Just breathe

Summer Tomato’s Darya Rose is a fan of Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing technique:

When you eat mindlessly your environment wins and you’re more likely to overeat. You also appreciate your food less, since you aren’t focused on the sensory pleasures of eating. Cultivating mindful eating habits is therefore one of the most valuable tools in your foodist tool belt, because it helps you eat less while enjoying it more. …

Remembering to eat mindfully can be very difficult. If you’re being mindless, how are you supposed to remember to be more mindful? If you remember to be mindful, aren’t you being mindful already? It can be tricky, so 4-7-8 breathing is an incredibly valuable tool to help build the habit.

Here’s the 4-7-8 breath how-to from Dr. Weil:

  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
  • Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
  • Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
  • This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.

And here he is demonstrating it:

One minute before meals? Sounds like a good plan: be more mindful while eating and also help aid in digestion. Winner, winner, chicken dinner ;).

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The blog Science of Eating Disorders recently had an interesting guest post on Binge Eating: When Should We Call It An “Addiction”?

I think they make a really great point re the difference between overeating and food addiction/binge eating. Unlike the former, where people may eat mindlessly or feel that they can’t turn down the cookies at the office or the dessert after dinner, with the latter (emphasis mine):

individuals often obsessively restrict their food intake and then later binge on high-calorie foods. Like drug addicts, these individuals spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing over food intake and hiding their behaviors from others. They skip out on social interactions to engage in their behaviors.

Furthermore, the way these individuals over-consume food is not reflective of “mindless overeating,” just because tasty food is available at their fingertips; it is ravenous, compulsory, and abnormal. Sometimes food is even tossed away as an attempt to avoid further binge intake, and then subsequently consumed straight out of the trashcan when the individual “gives in” to the behavior.

It seem very likely that the behavior between so-called “normal” eating and addiction is a continuum and it’s not necessarily as simple as whether one “eats out of the trash” or not. But I don’t really understand people scoffing at the idea that people can be addicted to food because their experience is only with theirs or others in the “mindless overeating” group.

What’s more interesting to me in this post, though, is the discussion of deprivation’s potential role in the development of this type of disordered eating. The author of the post suggests that it is the:

intermittent exposure to highly palatable, often sugary foods, often coupled with some compensatory food restriction and significant distress that results in food intake that can in any way be called “addictive”—not simple overconsumption of high-calorie foods. Both caloric restriction and intermittent sugar intake alter dopamine transmission in response to rewards, and intermittent—but not continuous—access to high-fat substances induces the typical “sawtooth” pattern of binge-restrict behavior in animals; reflective of human ED behaviors where individuals restrict food intake in between periodic episodes of binge eating.

Thus, perhaps it is the combination of these two behaviors, bingeing on fatty foods and subsequently attempting to restrict caloric intake, that produces an exaggerated response to food rewards and encourage compulsory food intake akin to compulsory drug intake.

I mentioned a while back that Emily Deans has also written about the link between dieting and “food addiction type behaviors.”

It boggles the mind to contemplate the idea that this theory may have merit. Our war on obesity coupled with the 24/7 availability of hyperpalatable, highly processed food may well be a perfect breeding ground for overeating and potentially food addictions. Anecdotes aren’t “real” [TM] science, but as the poster child for BED *and* someone who started dieting at age 9, it rings scarily true for me.

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Kid being tested with a marshmallowI am really in the midst of moving craziness and so do not have time to do this post justice. But it’s so interesting I have to at least mention it!

The new study by Kidd et al — Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability (PDF, news item) — revisits the classic marshmallow test with an interesting twist.

In the original study, kids were given one marshmallow and told that if they waited, they would get an additional marshmallow. For some kids this proved to be a difficult challenge (see the embedded video below for some really cute kids struggling).

The study presumed that those who were unable to wait had an inability to delay gratification.


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Via a very interesting post on willpower from the blog Psychology of Wellbeing comes a link to a very interesting paper on willpower and ego depletion (PDF). Both are well worth a full read, but here’s the money quote from the latter (cites removed, emphasis mine) suggesting that willpower may not be as limited as we think it is:

The present research suggests that implicit theories changed how people responded given their level of felt exhaustion on the initial task. People led to adopt a limited-resource theory performed worse the more exhausted they felt. But for people led to adopt a nonlimited-resource theory, there was no relationship between perceived exhaustion and subsequent performance. For them, exhaustion was not a sign to reduce effort.

Taken together, the results suggest that in some cases, ego depletion may result not from a true lack of resources after an exhausting task, but from people’s beliefs about their resources. We do not question that biological resources contribute to successful self-control. But these resources may be less limited than is commonly supposed. …

It is important that people understand that their own beliefs about willpower as a limited or nonlimited resource can affect their self-regulation.

I suspect that this same phenomenon may be at work in why abstention is useful as an addiction tool.

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In a recent radio interview with Carolyn Coker Ross, Gabor Mate had this to say about addiction (22:40, emphasis mine):

It’s a myth that drugs in themselves are addictive. I mean, it’s obvious that they are not, because most people who try most drugs never become addicted. Most people who try alcohol never become alcoholics. Most people who eat don’t develop an eating problem.

So you can’t say the cause of the eating problem is the food or the alcoholism is the alcohol. What you need for the disease of addiction to develop is both an addictive, or potentially addictive, substance or behavior (which could be almost anything in the whole world) and a susceptible individual.

For Mate, a susceptible individual is one who had early childhood trauma which prevented key brain circuits (opiates, dopamine, impulse control, and stress control) from developing properly. Of course, not everyone agrees with this … Stanton Peele (who wrote The Truth about Addiction and Recovery) considers Mate’s views a “reductionist vision” that “limit our approaches” to addiction. And if Mate’s answer really is Ayahuasca, Peele may have a point!


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