Imagine for a moment that you were presented with your absolute favorite food. It could be snack chips, chocolate, some sort of desert, ice cream, fast food: the list is endless, and is usually bad for you. Of course it is: otherwise it wouldn’t be as fun. “Well, just one” we chuckle to ourselves. A while later, we lay obstinately motionless on our respective couches, mentally berating and flogging ourselves for our over indulgence. And that scene plays over and over again, despite our purest and best of intentions to treat our bodies in a healthy fashion. Food Cravings have taken over.
The one food that I become a puddle for is Crème Brule. Fans of this delectable concoction know that it is filled with cream (lots of fat), and oodles of sugar. If it was on the dessert menu, I ordered it. Done: no debate there. I would give up my oldest daughter’s pristine, unopened collectible Spice Girls Barbie dolls for it. And by the way, I’ve never made this dish at home. One, it would give me an excuse to actually purchase ramekins, which I personally find adorable. Two, it’s far too dangerous knowing how to actually make it, not to mention I’m not that adept with blowtorches.
I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes (non-insulin dependent) a few years ago and nothing came as a greater shock. I could’ve done without some extra pounds, but I falsely associated this condition with obese people. It didn’t really hit me until a few days later, armed with brand new knowledge of my chronic condition, and I truly realized the extent of my dietary limitations. I was hyper-vigilant about eating the right foods, and I scoured the nutrition labels. Sadly, most diabetics need to watch everything, including salt, cholesterol, and the dreaded carbohydrates. I almost cried. I’m of Irish and Italian descent, and that meant potatoes and pasta. Kill me now. What I didn’t realize when I was sobbing in the middle of the grocery store contemplating a desolate future consuming celery (unsalted), water, and kale, was that the trick was moderation.
I don’t have a steely will. I failed miserably many times to conquer an obsessive craving for sugar and carbohydrates. There were long stretches of time where I literally just gave up and gave in. Thanks to my metabolism, I didn’t gain weight: I maintained, but I felt guilty as hell. I struggled: I finally started some long-overdue exercising, and I sweated and cursed, I did those awful squats using my uncooperative and popping knees and I began to feel better. I felt more in control of my personal destiny.
A few months ago along came this wonderful website, Make Food Safe. As I researched for the articles I wrote, I came across links to other topics. I discovered how much crappy stuff is added to what nature intended for us to eat, and not only that, Big Food companies knew a lot more about the science of how truly addicted we can become to sugar, fat, and added salt, and I wrote a few articles about that. It’s not all about will power.
Tricking the Brain
But what if a metaphorical switch could be flipped so that we could positively resist food cravings? It may be on the scientific horizon. My friends in the world of Petri dishes, microscopes, and all things marvelously scientific have been poking around for years in the area of addiction and trying to answer the question(s) as to what causes addictive behavior. And yes, let’s call overeating and resultant weight gain and obesity what it is: an addiction.
Controlling diabetes is hard. Controlling the ceaseless cravings for sugar and carbs is hard. How much easier would it have been for diabetics like me and millions more if we could somehow control those cravings? You don’t even have to have a chronic condition: you could just simply want to lose weight and/or eat healthier.
According to the European Society of Endocrinology and the World Health Organization,
“Obesity is a global epidemic, with approximately 650 million adults and 340 million children and adolescents currently considered obese, and the disease contributing to an estimated 2.8 million deaths per year worldwide. It has been reported that, in some obesity cases, the reward system in the brain may be altered, causing a greater reward response to food than in normal weight individuals. This can make patients more vulnerable to craving, and can lead to weight gain. This dysfunction in the reward system can also be seen in cases of addiction to substances, e.g. drugs or alcohol, or behaviours, e.g. gambling.” (ECE, 2018)
Of Mice and Men and Obesity
There are two noteworthy studies about this particular phenomenon. One study was chiefly conducted by Charles S. Zuker, PhD, a principal investigator at Columbia University’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute. He conjectures that the brain’s complex tastes system is actually “discrete units that can be individually isolated, modified, or removed all together.” This study was published on May 30, 2018 in an issue of Nature. The study was conducted on mice, specifically in the region of the brain known as the amygdala: better known as the emotional center of the brain that makes judgments based on sensory perception, especially with regard to sweet and bitter tastes. Because the amygdala connects directly to the brain’s taste cortex, scientists were able to manipulate sweet and bitter connections to the amygdala in the mice, almost like flipping a “neuron switch.” Thus, when the “sweet” connections were turned on, the mice responded to water just as if it were sugar. Further, when manipulating similar types of connections, the scientists were able to convert the perceived quality of a certain taste, e.g. turning a sweet taste into an aversive one.
According to Li Wang, PhD, another of the paper’s primary authors, the taste cortex is inextricably linked to the amygdala and coordinates our perceptions and emotional reactions to certain tastes. This research has opened up a pathway by which the emotions and memories associated with food could be manipulated to make it possible to avoid overeating.
“It would be like taking a bite of your favorite chocolate cake but not deriving any enjoyment from doing so,” said Dr. Wang. “After a few bites you may stop eating, whereas otherwise you would have scarfed it down.”
Additionally, the implications of this research and further investigation could offer hope for those afflicted with eating disorders.
Brain Stimulation and Food Addiction
In a closely related study albeit using humans, researchers have discovered yet another fascinating vehicle for combating obesity embedded in a procedure known as Deep Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (dTMS).This study was published on May 21, 2018. It is a treatment that employs magnetic energy to stimulate the neurons in very specific areas of the human brain, now used to treat depression and addiction. It came to the attention of researchers that perhaps this same treatment could be used to reduce food cravings. Professor Livio Luzi and his fellow research colleagues from the Istituto di Ricovero e Cura a Carattere Scientifico Policlinico in San Donato, Italy studied how dTMS worked to mitigate the mechanisms of appetite and satiety in obese individuals. The results demonstrated “high frequency dTMS significantly increased blood levels of beta-endorphins – neurotransmitters involved in producing heightened feelings of reward after food ingestion – compared to low frequency dTMS or controls.” Next steps for the researchers include using brain imaging to identify how these high frequency dTMS changes the workings of the obese brain and eventually extending dTMS treatment to a larger population of obese individuals.
Don’t Let Them Tell You It’s All About Willpower
Given the information presented in these two very recent studies, it becomes clearer that science can offer more comprehensive and effective treatments to help conquer our worst food cravings. These cravings have their origins deep within our brains, and are not always within the realm of our psyche, a component of which is willpower. The potential implications for treating obesity, eating disorders, and just the normal tendency to overeat are tremendous. Stay tuned for further information on this topic here on Make Food Safe as it becomes available.
By: Kerry Bazany, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)