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Eating - from casual to compulsive

What scientists call "Overweight" ch...
What scientists call "Overweight" changes with our knowledge of human health (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In a world where we are battling addiction of some sort or the other, food is another item that has made the list. With the rising number of obese people around, scientists are looking for answer to questions that come up with eating, and one question that has made it to the fore is; when does the habit of eating move from being casual to compulsive. 

To answer this question scientists had to dig deeper and look at the relationship that food has with not only our body, but also with our brain. What they found was nothing short of astonishing. Eating, it seems, is not very different from addiction to drugs. Our brain has opioid receptors that are receptive to opiates (substances such as heroin, morphine etc.) These molecules play an important role in motivation, emotional attachment, satisfaction etc. Our body produces similar proteins as well, which are known as endorphins or endogenous morphine. These neurotransmitters are produced during excitement, love, orgasm, exercise and surprisingly while we eat spicy food, thus, giving you the feeling of wellbeing and happiness. Recent studies have shown that food, too, contains opioid molecules that trigger the very same receptors as does heroin, morphine and opium. In fact the same drugs (Naloxone) that is used to treat heroin addicts can be used for food addicts as well!

Naloxone injection Image credit:
Treats heroin addicts as well as food addicts! 

What does this say about the food that we eat, well a lot. Food opioids can be found in the most unsuspecting places like wheat, milk, rice and even spinach. In fact foods that are high in carbohydrate content, fat and phenylethylamine (a chemical that is loaded in chocolate) are said to trigger endorphins, making you crave for more. (Making that virtually everything!) 

But a more serious question here is, at what point do we stop calling the shots and become a mere victim of our lusty brain? Food is probably the most fundamental and may I add quintessential, part of being alive thus making it vital and available to all (unlike certain black market drugs). Then why is it that only some of us end up becoming addicted to our food? 

Recent genetics studies have revealed the role genes have to play in obesity. Scientists have found a single gene responsible for the feeling of hunger and satiety. Mutation in this “gluttony gene”, is believed to cause uncontrolled eating and hence obesity. Studies on mice have revealed that mutation in the Bdnf (gluttony) gene prevents the neurons to transmit signals that tell the body that it is full. Another gene that has recently caught the attention of scientist studying obesity, is the FTO gene. Variations in this gene give rise to people who have difficulty putting on weight, and those who have trouble losing weight. It is also postulated that this gene largely controls ones craving for food that is high in sugar and fat.

Mouse with a mutation in BDNF (Gluttony) Gene Image credit:
Mouse with a mutation in BDNF (Gluttony) Gene

Although this new information has helped understand overeating and obesity, how to tackle the problem is still the bigger question. With our fast paced, increasingly inactive lives, obesity is a serious issue to deal with. Although modern science and new technology may offer us deeper insights into obesity, the solution to overcoming it age old. Good exercise and a well-balanced diet- something that we have been studying since grade 1.


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