Vicious Cycle of Overeating and Feeling Bad

A new study says that regularly consuming a diet full of high-fat, rich foods can actually cause chemical reactions in the brain in a similar way to drugs, ultimately leading to depression as the ‘come-downs’ take their toll. Researchers at the University of Montreal Hospital Research Centre showed that similar to drug addicts, a vicious cycle sets in where “food-highs” are used as a way to combat depression. For the study, researchers fed mice different foods to determine any behavioral changes based on food selection. The brains of the mice were also evaluated for any changes. They used a variety of scientifically validated techniques to evaluate the relationship between rewarding mice with food and their resulting behavior and emotions.

The key finding was that the rodents that had been given a higher-fat diet displayed signs of being anxious and depressed, such as making less of an effort to escape when trapped. Even more importantly, high-fat foods changed certain brain behavior in mice. For instance, CREB (a molecule that controls the activation of genes involved in the functioning of our brains and is well known for its contribution to memory formation) was much more activated in the brains of higher-fat diet mice.  Previous research has shown that CREB is also involved in the fear response. In addition, these mice had higher levels of a hormone related to stress, corticosterone.

Lead researcher, Dr. Stephanie Fulton, said that it has been shown that “obese people are at an increased risk of becoming depressed, but information on how the neural mechanisms and brain reward patterns link the two is lacking.” She explained that their findings demonstrated for the first time that regularly consuming palatable, high-fat foods has pro-depressive effects.

“This study reinforces previous studies that demonstrate strong addictive-like eating behaviors may be contributing to the rise in obesity,” said Dr. Daniel Davis, expert weight loss surgeon and Chief of Bariatric Surgery at the Center for Surgical Weight Loss at Stamford Hospital in Connecticut.   “In this current study, high fat diet led to pro-depressive effects, the same brain chemical reactions that can occur in drug addicts after coming down off a high.  As with carbohydrates, fats can trigger powerful neural reward centers making it extremely difficult to limit the consumption of these nutrients, ultimately leading to failed weight loss attempts.  Understanding the similarities in the neural chemical pathways associated with drug addiction and addictive-like eating behavior will help tailor effective behavioral therapies”, Dr. Davis explained.

“The importance of a multidisciplinary team approach can not be overemphasized in treating morbid obesity.” Davis concluded that “surgery is just a tool, a team of nutritionists specialized in eating disorders, bariatric psychologists and exercise specialist are crucial for long-term maintenance of this chronic, addictive disease.”

Related Reading:

A study published in 2011 found that people with addictive-like eating behavior have greater neural activity in certain regions of the brain, similar to substance dependence. You can read more about the study here.

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