What overweight women may have in common with drug addicts

by Carolyn Thomas    @HeartSisters

My daughter Larissa and I have sometimes marvelled at a very strange packaging concept: re-sealable bags of chocolate chips.   Are there actually people out there, we wondered, who open a bag of these chips, pour out only the 3/4 cup they need for their cookie recipe, and then put the re-sealed bag back into the cupboard?

The August issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition will help to explain this odd phenomenon for us. Apparently, some women don’t scarf down the entire bag on the spot – just because it’s been opened! When researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo gave similarly sinful snacks to both overweight and healthy-weight women, the healthy-weight women wanted less of the treat over time, but the overweight women kept wanting more.

In an earlier study, the same research team found that ‘food reinforcement’ (the term used to describe our motivation to eat) decreased in healthy-weight women but increased in overweight women when both groups were asked to consume large amounts of snack foods like M&M candies, potato chips or cookies for days at a time. Women in the overweight group shared characteristics like obesity and diabetes – both serious heart disease risk factors.

Lead researcher Dr. Jennifer Temple in Buffalo explained:

“After two weeks of eating the same snack foods, the healthy-weight women came back into our lab and and said things like: ‘I never want to see a potato chip ever again!”

But not so for the overweight women.  In some cases, in fact, the overweight women reported still wanting the snack foods offered by researchers even when they didn’t like the foods.

This pattern, says Dr. Temple, is strikingly similar to that seen in drug addicts:

“We’re exploring the idea of sensitization, which happens with drug users. Response to a drug can actually decrease over repeated use, and that leads to more drug use.”

Last October, researchers at the University of Texas reported that the taste of food produces less of a pleasurable sensation in the brains of overweight women compared to healthy-weight women, and that the overweight women may have to eat more to compensate.

In particular, eating tasty food produces less dopamine in their brains, a hormone that promotes positive feelings of happiness and lowers anxiety.  Similar to the sensitization seen in drug addicts, this may mean that overweight people have to eat more in order to produce the same feelings of contentment.

Kay Sheppard, an eating disorder therapist and author of Food Addiction: The Body Knows, says:

“For some people, certain foods can be as addictive as alcohol or drugs. Sweet or salty foods can actually lead to depression and irritability. The terrible truth is that for certain individuals, refined carbohydrates can trigger the addictive process.”

And addictions counsellor Michael Bayer explains that this particular addiction is to a process, not necessarily to a substance.

“It is marked by a preoccupation with food, the availability of food and the anticipation of the good feelings derived from eating food. Food addiction involves the repetitive eating of food even when an individual knows that they should not eat in this way.”

Michael Bayer lists these signs that point to a possible food addiction:

* eating when not hungry
* eating when feeling low or depressed
* eating in secret or eating differently in front of others than when alone
* eating foods that are known to be harmful to the person eating them
* experiencing feelings of guilt

Learn more information about Dr. Temple’s research in Buffalo, New York.

See also:


Q:  Can you identify with research subjects who said: “I never want to see a potato chip ever again?”

5 thoughts on “What overweight women may have in common with drug addicts

  2. So good Carolyn. I remember oh so short time ago when told what not to eat just made me want it so much more. Then that is all I could think about. It was a source of comfort and addiction. ‘eating foods that are known to be harmful to the person eating them’ was so true of me. Now if I do that it’s by choice and I enjoy and stop.


      1. When they took me off all meds due to increased liver engymes my cholesterol skyrocketed. I had managed to gain over 20lbs and felt desperate. I had blown it for so long I finally got scared. I have lost 16 lbs and still have 20 to go. No rush. It has taken since November.


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