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Dustin LindenSmith

father | musician | writer

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Is obesity an addiction?

I was just corresponding with grammardog about this topic when my mom sent me an e-mail from the Dr. Daniel Amen, who is a psychiatrist that's been doing a bunch of research with brain scans related to various psychiatric and other medical disorders. In the article she forwarded, Amen refers to a book called The End of Overeating by David Kessler which I read last fall. That's where I first learned that researchers are starting to take the idea of obesity as an addictive problem seriously.
A lot of people blame their weight problems on a lack of willpower, but mounting scientific evidence points toward obesity as an addiction rather than a simple character flaw.

In our clinics, SPECT brain imaging has shown us that being overweight is a brain disorder similar to what we see in people who are addicted to substances like cocaine or heroin.

In people with addictions, the brain’s reward system gets hijacked. The brain’s reward system is an intricate network that involves the neurotransmitter dopamine, which drives you to seek out pleasurable things, and the prefrontal cortex, which puts on the brakes to keep you from overindulging in those things.

When this system is balanced, it works beautifully to keep your behaviors in check. In people with addictions, however, the reward system goes haywire. The dopamine centers take control and reduce the effectiveness of the prefrontal cortex.

Here’s how the reward system can hijack the brain. Whenever we do something enjoyable—taking a walk on the beach, listening to music, holding a lover’s hand—it’s like pressing a button in the brain to release a little bit of dopamine to make us feel pleasure. If we push these pleasure buttons too often or too strong, we reduce their effectiveness. Eventually, it takes more and more excitement and stimulation to feel anything at all.

Cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, alcohol, and nicotine all cause dopamine surges that can make you crave these substances. The amount of dopamine released when drugs are taken can be two to 10 times more than what your brain produces for natural rewards.

Certain foods can produce the same effect. In The End of Overeating, Dr. David Kessler, a former FDA commissioner, writes that the high-fat, high-sugar combos found in many mouthwatering snacks light up the brain’s dopamine pathway similar to the way drugs and alcohol do. He suggests that some people can actually get hooked on chocolate chip cookies the way other people get addicted to cocaine.

-- from Is Obesity an Addiction or Just A Lack of Willpower? by Dr. Daniel Amen (article here)
As I was just saying in my e-mail to Sara, I've long felt that willpower is not at play in my obesity. I often feel quite powerless over my eating habits, and I frequently eat for emotional and comfort reasons which take real effort to replace with non-food comforts if you're in the habit of eating for comfort. My mom, who's a yoga teacher and has also battled with obesity for much of her adult life, has just started a class in Calgary called Healthy Weight Yoga and she has been sharing some extensive class notes and instructional materials that she has developed for her class. In some of those materials, there are suggestions about ways to reward yourself without food that I think might be good replacements. Things like quiet time to yourself, a constructive hobby that really engages your mind, that sort of thing.

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iamom February 3rd, 2010
That's interesting. Are you following some sort of a specific nutrition plan? Have you changed your amount of physical exercise? What's the nature of your diet, and how have you dealt with those cravings you mentioned? Doesn't sound like you're giving in to them too much.

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iamom February 5th, 2010
Zazen, huh? Do you have a regular sitting practice every day? If so, how long have you been doing that? And in what way would you say that it has affected you?

I have had this intuitive sense for years that my eating problems would go away if I started a regular sitting practice. But that might be a bit of a mental trap too, one of those, "If only I could do this, then that problem would go away" kind of things.

So far as your diet goes, it sounds like a common-sense, healthy diet coupled with true awareness of your hunger level. If I didn't eat when I wasn't physically hungry, I wouldn't have an eating problem either. :)

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iamom February 7th, 2010
Geez, 108 days. That's a serious commitment. I wonder if I could try something like that. Maybe start smaller though, try 10 days in a row. That'd be 10 days more than I've ever done in a stretch before...

Thanks for your feedback and insights, I appreciate them.

vyus February 3rd, 2010
been trying to lose 5 xmas pounds.

forgot how hard it was to consciously lose weight, especially once the habit's been reformed.

i need to go on another walkabout -- i always lose the bad weight when i'm meeting new people.

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