Is fat addictive in the same way that drugs are? It’s an intriguing thought. According to compelling new animal research, eating a high-fat diet rewires the pleasure centers of the brain and makes it more challenging to make healthier food choices.
Is a Diet High in Fat Addictive?
In one study, rats with electrodes planted in their brains to monitor their brain activity had free access to high-fat foods including such unhealthy goodies as sausage, cake and frosting. Over time, these overindulgent rats developed a tolerance to the pleasure of eating these foods and began to eat more. So focused were they on getting their “fat fix” that they were willing to endure a painful electric shock to keep munching away on fatty foods – similar to the way a druggie focuses only on finding more drugs.
Why is a High-Fat Diet Addictive?
Researchers believe that eating too many high-fat foods overstimulates special brain receptors that release the neurotransmitter dopamine. This dopamine release causes a short-term feeling of pleasure and well-being. On the other hand, too much stimulation causes the receptors to become less responsive so an animal has to eat greater quantities of high-fat food to get the same pleasurable feelings. It’s easy to see the similarities between addiction to fat and drug addiction since they follow similar brain pathways.
Why Diets High in Fat Are Risky
Other research suggests that eating too many high-fat foods early in life may alter the brain in a way that makes it more difficult to make healthy food choices and maintain a desirable body weight. Thus, good nutrition early in life may be important for weight control later on.
The Bottom Line?
It’s important to eat some dietary fat to help with absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and provide a source of fuel during low-intensity exercise. Most experts recommend that fats make up no more than 30% of a person’s diet. These should consist mostly of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.
These fat addiction studies don’t necessarily apply to humans, but there are scores of people who can’t seem to break the junk food habit. Are they addicted to the dopamine rush that comes from biting into a Big Mac or munching an order of fries? If so treating obesity could be just as difficult as rehabilitating a person addicted to drugs – and winning the obesity battle could be all the more challenging.
Medical News Today. “Discovery of Common Links Between Obesity and Drug Abuse”
CNN Health. “Fatty Foods May Cause Cocaine-Like Addiction”.