Overeating: Is It an Addiction?

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The holidays are a time for eating: pies at Thanksgiving, chocolates for Advent and overflowing gift baskets of cookies and candies through the New Year. If you’re having trouble saying no to the bounty of fat and sugar, give yourself a break: your willpower may be no match for brain pathways that make overeating — much like drug-taking — feel so good.

Several studies recently presented at the Society for Neuroscience’s 2010 Annual Meeting explored those brain pathways, and compared them with those involved in drug addiction, according to an NPR report on Wednesday. Researchers have found that high-calorie, fatty foods may light up the same pathways that drugs do, at least in animal studies, and that early exposure to too much of these foods can change the way the brain responds in the long term. (More on Time.com: 5 Ways to Get Oatmeal in Your Diet, Deliciously)

In one study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, mice that were fed a high-fat diet during the first 20 weeks of life and had become obese showed significant and lasting changes in brain areas involved in reward — making the brain less responsive to the same fatty foods. The researchers said the effects were similar to those seen in drug addiction. In another study from Concordia University in Montreal, researchers found that hungry rats sought heroin when food was not available.

It wouldn’t be quite right to suggest, however, that food works on the brain’s drug pathways. Rather, it’s the other way around. “Drug addiction is really hijacking some of these pathways that evolved to promote food intake for survival reasons,” Ralph DiLeone, associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University, told NPR. (More on Time.com: Photos: How to Dress Yourself Thin)

So is food really addictive, like a drug? That’s still not clear, but it’s likely that compulsive overeating probably bears some resemblance to addiction. Anyone who’s gotten lost in the pleasure of polishing off a pint of mint chip ice cream knows how hard it can be to stop.

DiLeone tells NPR’s Jon Hamilton:

“That means it makes sense to focus on eating behavior early in life, when the brain is adapting to a particular environment. It also probably makes sense to take approaches used to treat addiction and adapt them to overeating.”

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