Eating, emotional satisfaction, and weight gain–or what we might learn from a chocolate milkshake

Interesting new evidence reveals that many who are overweight gain less emotional satisfaction from eating and as a result eat more. A clearer understanding of what’s going wrong in the brain could point to better ways to combat obesity and help people stay at a healthy weight.

We know that eating triggers a release of the brain chemical dopamine. The greater the dopamine release, the greater the feelings of reward. Previous studies have shown obese people tend to have fewer receptors for receiving dopamine signals.

Enter the chocolate milkshakes. Researchers at the University of Oregon and two other centers wanted to compare how the brain’s reward center responds to pleasing foods in obese and lean individuals. Female volunteers, ranging in age from 14 to 22 were given chocolate milkshakes.

The taste of a milkshake stirred activity in the brains of overweight volunteers, but far less than in the brains of lean volunteers. Reward center activity was even more blunted in overweight volunteers who tested positive for a particular gene variation which seems to reduce brain dopamine receptors.

Participants’ weight was then tracked for one year. Those with low brain activation in response to the milkshake who also had the gene variant were significantly more likely to gain weight.

How to interpret this study? Well, the experts are not in agreement, but what I find interesting is that the study highlights the role of our emotions and our expectations that food will make us feel better–even when the result is not as satisfying as we would like. We can’t change our genetics, but we can use tools and strategies to be as clear as we can about 1) the expectations we have when we eat and 2) whether we are eating in a quest to cope with feelings, or improve or change our mood.

Knowing that eating isn’t the best strategy to create the desired effect might help some avoid a vicious cycle of overeating, weight gain, guilt, and more emotional eating.

Knowing that food does not create the emotional rewards one is seeking, it also seems very important to develop alternate sources of “feeding ourselves,” learning to create feelings of satisfaction and pleasure in our lives without turning to food.

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