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Studies: Overeating Akin to Drug Abuse

Good food acts in the brain 'like a drug,' expert says

THURSDAY, July 15, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Overeaters may have much in common with drug abusers, new studies suggest.

Illicit drugs snare users because the drugs engage brain pathways associated with appetite and the enjoyment of food, said Dr. Mark Gold, chief of addiction medicine at the University of Florida School of Medicine in Gainesville and co-author of three papers published on overeating, obesity and addiction in the current issue of the Journal of Addictive Diseases.

What's the difference, he asks, between someone who has lost control over alcohol or other drugs and over good food? "When you look at their brains and brain responses, the differences are not very significant," he said.

"Really great food acts in the brain like a drug," he said.

This "food-as-drug" model, considered radical by many in the medical community 10 years ago, is now given serious consideration, Gold added.

And he proposes that overeating is in part due to food becoming more palatable, hedonistic and refined. Food might be the substance in a substance abuse disorder that we see today as obesity, he said.

About 24 percent of U.S. adults aged 20 and above are now obese, according to estimates from a 2003 survey by the National Center for Health Statistics.

Obesity might also be a hidden hazard, Gold and others say, for those starting on the road to sobriety. "Drug abstinence, stopping any drug dependence -- whether alcohol, marijuana, or cocaine -- causes rebound increases in appetite and the drive for food," Gold said.

Drug or alcohol addiction treatment should include a plan for a healthy diet and regular exercise, Gold said. In one of the studies, Gold and his team found that 75 teenagers in a long-term residential treatment program gained an average of 11 pounds during the first 60 days off drugs.

If drugs are available, eating declines, but if the drugs are gone, eating increases, Gold believes.

Another study correlated obesity and self-reported alcohol use in 300 women, aged 16 to 79, undergoing weight-loss treatment. The more obese they were, the less likely they were to drink alcohol, the researchers found.

The theory is that eating and drinking alcohol are competing in the brain for the "reward pathways."

The similarities between overeaters and drug abusers presents new potential treatment approaches, Gold said. "Some of the treatment for addiction might be treatment for obesity," he said. "There will be a whole host of new treatments proposed because we start to see eating highly palatable, highly enjoyable foods as different than eating broth but similar to using drugs of abuse."

Another expert calls the new studies interesting, but added they don't hold true for everyone. "Some may eat a lot and use drugs together," said Steve Sussman, a professor of preventive medicine and psychology at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine.

The concept of encouraging a healthy diet for those trying to quit an alcohol or illegal drug habit isn't new, said Sussman, an expert in drug abuse treatment and addiction. "For the past 15 years, a variety of recovery books have suggested you should do this."

Still, the studies' findings are valuable, he said. "The main importance of the studies is the fact that there is finally empirical data supporting what was folk wisdom," Sussman said.

More information

To learn more about drug abuse, visit the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

SOURCES: Mark Gold, M.D., chief, addiction medicine, University of Florida School of Medicine, Gainesville; Steve Sussman, Ph.D., professor, preventive medicine and psychology, USC Keck School of Medicine, Los Angeles; Journal of Addictive Diseases
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