Losing weight when you are obese is a serious challenge, likewise gaining weight when you are anorexic. This difficulty stems from the habits we create for ourselves and consequently, the conditioning our brains receive. When you need to overcome an eating disorder, it’s not just a matter of willpower, but studies suggest it’s also a matter of remapping brain circuitry, and that’s no easy task.
As of 2008, one in every 200 US women suffered from Anorexia and more than two out of every three were overweight or obese. That means millions of American women are struggling with their weight every day. For this reason, scientists in the Developmental Brain Research Program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine wanted to find out how eating behavior was related to dopamine pathways, similar to those found in drug addictions. They compared the brain activity of 63 women who were either anorexic or obese to those of normal weight and found that “reward circuits in the brain are sensitized in anorexic women and desensitized in obese women.” Basically, this means that anorexic women get much more pleasure and satisfaction out of a sweet treat than someone who is obese. As with drug tolerances, it takes much more of those foods we love to satisfy the cravings of someone who is overweight. Anorexic women on the other hand, might feel like they’ve had too much, a sugar overdose so to speak, after partaking in a single serving. More research needs to be done to determine the precise role of the brain’s reward system when it comes to eating disorders, but so far, it seems that it definitely has some part in regulating food intake.
Although the involvement of your brain circuitry might make your battle with weight loss or weight gain more intimidating, all is not lost. Recent brain research shows that with gradual habit changes and regular conditioning, we can change the neural pathways in our brains. As with any addiction, kicking the habit isn’t easy, but once you train your brain, your new, healthier habits should help keep you on track.
- Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.