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Dieters Face Similar Problems as Drug Abusers

Researchers have discovered irregular eating of foods rich in fat and sugar can cause changes in the brain comparable to those observed in drug dependence.

According to Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) scientists, their findings may explain how abstinence from these foods contributes to relapse eating among dieters as well as related eating disorders.

The findings are reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Forms of obesity and eating disorders can be defined as chronic relapsing conditions with alternating periods of abstinence (dieting to avoid “forbidden” foods, rich in sugar and fat, also known as palatable foods) and relapse (compulsive, often uncontrollable, eating of highly-palatable foods) that continue despite negative consequences.

Although the positive reinforcing properties of palatable foods are well known, less attention has been given to the increased probability of a behavioral response produced by removal of an aversive stimulus (intake of palatable food to relieve negative emotional states).

The researchers used 155 rats to measure the neurobiological responses. The first group, the diet cycled subjects, repeatedly ate standard rat chow for five days, followed by a highly palatable, high-sugar, chocolate-flavored chow for two days.

The second group ate only standard food. The amount of food consumed was not restricted for either group. When the diet-cycled rats were fed standard chow, they showed less motivation to obtain it, refused it, although it was previously acceptable, and they exhibited anxiety.

However when the rats resumed eating the palatable food, they overate and their anxiety-related behaviors returned to normal.

The researchers then looked at the role of the brain’s stress system, which contributes to cycles of drug and alcohol bingeing and withdrawal, in driving these behaviors. They found that during abstinence from palatable foods, the rats showed increased corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) gene expression and peptide in the amygdala, an area of the brain involved in fear, anxiety and stress responses.

Similar to the anxiety, only when the diet-cycled group was fed palatable food did CRF levels return to normal. Importantly, the blockade of the CRF receptor 1 with a selective antagonist was able to prevent all the behavioral outcomes of palatable food withdrawal.

According to the researchers, CRF is a key stress neurotransmitter. “In observing the activation of the amygdaloid CRF system during abstinence from palatable foods, we understood the causes of recurrent dieting failures,” said study co-author Pietro Cottone, PhD, an assistant professor and co-director of the Laboratory of Addictive Disorders in the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics at BUSM.

“CRF activation during abstinence from palatable foods induces a negative emotional state which is responsible for signs of anxiety and contributes to relapse to ‘forbidden foods,'” added study co-author Valentina Sabino, PhD, an assistant professor and co-Director of the Laboratory of Addictive Disorders in the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics at BUSM.

“The stress experienced by frequent dieters in abstinence from palatable food has neurobiological similarities to the negative emotional state of drug and alcohol addicts.”

Source: Boston University Medical Center

Dieters Face Similar Problems as Drug Abusers

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Dieters Face Similar Problems as Drug Abusers. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 22, 2019, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.