Under the influence of food: study shows overeating causes effects similar to taking drugs

A little bit of overindulgence may be a regular holiday tradition, but the amount and kinds of food we eat may be shaping our brain chemistry in unexpected ways.

A recent study about food consumption and addiction found that the motivation to eat and the motivation to take drugs involve similar circuits of the brain.

“I’m not surprised,” Butler’s Staff Physician Dr. Maria Fletcher said. “There are neurotransmitters in the brain that focus on pleasure.

“Dopamine is something that we base a lot of our depression medications on.”

Fletcher acknowledges that dopamine is just one factor, citing culture and genetics as some of the major causes of this relationship with food. However, the amount of pleasure we derive from food is still a major determinant in how our brain creates these pathways and circuits.

“When you are raised in a certain cultural atmosphere, there are pathways that are etched in your brain,” Fletcher said.

She explained that these pathways tend to be habit-forming, resulting in the brain being able to derive satisfaction from eating certain types of foods.

“There is a combination of changes in the brain and how food impacts our brain chemistry and our body chemistry,” Mindy Wallpe, staff therapist at Butler’s Counselling and Consultation Services, said.

She said that our environment, how we learn and what we are conditioned to, are also major factors.

Wallpe also cited the importance of stress and emotional issues in addition to behavior and genetics. She attributed some of the changes to body image problems and a fast-paced lifestyle.

“Individuals that use food to cope with stress are not aware of what they’re putting in their bodies,” Wallpe said.

She said the widespread availability of processed foods in our culture is another one of the contributing factors to overeating.

Fletcher agreed that culturally we have a unique relationship with food, considering that much of our food is processed and usually consumed not for its own sake but in the course of doing other things.

“Countries that have not been influenced by the Western diet have maintained a lower level of obesity,” she said.

Sarah Barnes, Butler coordinator for health education and outreach programs, pointed out that for college students, this time of year often brings an immense amount of stress and is a temptation to engage in unhealthy eating habits.

“It’s good to eat food that will give you fuel,” Barnes said.

She recommends that students pay attention to what their body requires, avoiding sugar highs and limiting caffeine intake as much as possible. Instead, she stresses focusing on getting enough water and fresh foods.

Barnes said that unhealthy food is often a problem on college campuses, as it is used to draw students to different events. She said Butler Dining Services has been taking positive steps by providing nutritional information about its food.

“We’re trying to be conscious about the types of food we’re serving on the campus,” Barnes said, emphasizing that much of the push for eliminating junk food as an incentive to attract students has come from the students themselves.

Barnes and Fletcher said they agreed that it is important to be mindful of what we eat and of the process of eating itself, giving the brain an opportunity to process the effects of food intake.

Regarding holiday eating, Fletcher said she recommends planning ahead and taking the time to enjoy food, as well as making healthier choices and drinking lots of fluids. She recommends following this rule: “by the time you get to the turkey, all you want is just a little bit.”

Wallpe suggests that when it comes to the pressure to overindulge during the holidays, it is important to think about the consequences of what we put into our bodies, as well as the psychological reasons of why we choose to eat.

So, how do we go about changing something that may be both culturally and emotionally wired in our brains?

“It’s not just willpower,” Fletcher said.

She said it’s important to raise awareness about healthy eating habits, self-control, portion size and leading an active lifestyle.

“Be aware of what’s going on in your life, why you choose certain foods and when you choose to eat,” Wallpe said.

Fletcher and Wallpe both agree that food should not necessarily be seen in terms of good and bad.

“There isn’t a good or bad food,” Wallpe said. “It’s more about making the right choices as to what kind of food you need.”

Fletcher said she insists that although the kind of food we eat affects our neural pathways, a simple change of habits may be enough to make a positive impact on our psychological response to food.

“The pathways in our brain are flexible,” she said. “We have to be able to withstand changes in our environment.”