Most people can be expected to eat when they are hungry, but a new study shows that some people may continue to eat because, for all intents and purposes, their brains are literally addicted to food.
An international group of researchers gave 81 participants—42 with normal weights and 39 who were obese—a buffet-style meal. Later, those same people were shown pictures of foods from the buffet while receiving an MRI. What the study found was that cravings for these foods activated a different part of the brain in the obese group than they did in the normal group.
“There is an ongoing controversy over whether obesity can be called a ‘food addiction,’ but in fact there is very little research which shows whether or not this might be true,” said Oren Contreras-Rodriguez, a researcher at the University of Grenada. “The findings in our study support the idea that the reward processing following food stimuli in obesity is associated with neural changes similar to those found in substance addiction”—meaning that some people’s brains produce a response from eating akin to ones produced by hard drugs.
As with many studies, the researcher stressed that the findings present an “association” and whether one causes the other is undetermined. Obese people may get addicted to food over time instead of being driven to eat by a predisposition toward an eating addiction. Still, simply understanding these “brain biomarkers,” as Contreras-Rodriguez called them, could help the development of ways to control excessive eating in the future.