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Food addiction is a common problem among people who struggle with weight loss. Addiction to foods high in sugar, salt, and fat often leads to obesity and other health problems. These foods have been shown to have a similar effect as heroin or cocaine, in a way that they trigger the reward and pleasure centers in the brain to be motivated to eat more. Eating causes the release of a chemical (neurotransmitter) called dopamine, which increases pleasure and stimulates more cravings. These events, unfortunately, override the normal feelings of satiety or fullness, which usually signal the body to stop eating.
And just like people who are addicted to illegal substance or alcohol, food addicts will find it difficult to change their habits, even if they are aware of the negative consequences, such as excessive weight gain or chronic disease.
Hope for Food Addicts
New research conducted by scientists at Tufts University and at the Massachusetts General Hospital aimed to find out if the brain can be retrained to change its preferences for the type of foods eaten. The authors of the study built their premise on the fact that food preferences are built over time, and that it may be difficult to reverse the addiction circuits once they are established. However, they wondered if behavioral intervention can help alter the way the brain centers are activated in response to healthy foods.
The pilot study involved 13 healthy, but overweight or obese men and women, who were randomized to either a control (no treatment) group or an intervention (weight-loss treatment) group. In the weight loss intervention group, the participants were allowed to eat low-calorie foods, with the goal of reducing their daily calorie intake by 500 to 1000 calories per day. They also participated in behavioral weight management programswhich involved attending didactic and support group sessions. The intervention provided lessons on portion-controlled menus, recipe suggestions, and menu plans that included the use of high fiber, low-glycemic index carbohydrates and high protein foods.
Before the study began and at the end of six months, participants from both groups underwent MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) brain scans while they looked at various images (food and non-food). Food images included high calorie and low calorie foods. The scientists found that the brain scans of participants in the weight loss program showed changes in the reward center in the brain, which were associated with both learning and addiction. The results showed that after six months of behavioral modification, there was an increase in the sensitivity of the brain to healthier, low calorie foods, which indicated an increase in enjoyment in this type of foods. On the other hand, the researchers also noted a decrease in sensitivity to the unhealthy, high calorie foods.
Although the results are preliminary, and more studies need to be done to support their findings, the authors believe that behavioral modification through a weight loss program may help change one's food preferences, suggesting that the brain may be retrained to choose healthier foods.