Are YOU a Junk Food Junkie?
The seemingly endless search for an effective weight loss drug continues apace with last week’s FDA approval of Contrave, a weight loss drug composed of two drugs previously approved to treat depression and addictions.
And therein lies perhaps its greatest meaning – as the drug itself is unlikely to prove any more a weight loss breakthrough than its predecessors. No weight loss drug to date has made more than a dent in our expanding waistlines, individually or collectively.
This one differs from most of its weight loss predecessors by not attempting to block your body’s absorption of carbs or fats or otherwise mess with your bodily processes. Instead, it focuses on the addictive, and depressing, effects of our over-processed diets – effects that, along with other deleterious effects of an over-processed food supply, are largely responsible for our obesity epidemic (a term that’s no hyperbole in this instance).
Diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s – obesity, and central obesity (belly fat) especially, is the key driver of the escalation of these diseases, and many more, in our demand for medical services and resulting healthcare bills.
So any weight loss progress we can make in treating it should probably be welcomed. But there may be more to gain by considering the implications of this latest entry in the search for a weight loss magic pill…
Are You Addicted to a Depressing Diet?
More important than the medication itself is the hidden meaning in this latest weight loss drug approval. And that is the recognition of the roles that depression and addiction play in an obesity problem that remains largely an enigma to our medical community.
One of the more complex parts of the weight loss conundrum is the brain’s involvement in our eating behaviors. We’ve known for decades about the importance of essential nutrients like the omega-3 oils in fish, seeds and nuts for brain health. Less appreciated and understood are the our diets’ effects on brain function and eating behaviors.
Do some people eat more because they’re depressed? We probably all know people who do, but isn’t it also possible that some of us are depressed because of our diets?
Our dietary choices, after all, have physiological consequences that include hormonal changes that directly affect our thought processes. It’s not much of a reach to depression from there.
Nor is addiction a reach as a direct effect, for many, of diets burdened with unprecedented levels of fructose and other sugars, artificial sweeteners, trans fats, saturated oils, preservatives, colorings, and genetic modifications.
The term “Frankenfood” applies more literally to our over-processed diets by the day.
Diets Making Dopes of Us All
These carefully calibrated chemical concoctions have been proven to stimulate our bodies’ dopamine production in manners akin to cocaine and heroin.
A number of prominent physicians and much clinical evidence around the weight loss conundrum support the concept of food addictions, as evidenced by the following excerpts from medicinenet.com:
“Neal Barnard, MD…believes cheese, meat, chocolate, & sugar are addictive foods…containing chemicals that stimulate the brain’s secretion of opiate-like ‘feel-good’ chemicals like dopamine, which drive our cravings for them”;
“Alan Goldhamer, DC…agrees. ‘A large percentage of the population is vulnerable to the effects of this hyperstimulation (from foods that trigger dopamine production), and they get caught up in an addictive cycle’”;
“In an animal study at Princeton…after rats binged on sugar, they showed classic signs of withdrawal…when the sweets were removed from their diet, suggesting that sugar may have addictive properties” (emphases added).
A study of smokers trying to quit reached a similar conclusion:
“Food is a powerful reinforcer, and individual differences in the reinforcing value of food may help to explain excess (calorie) intake responsible for obesity and weight gain after smoking cessation…
“Positive reinforcers such as food and drugs of abuse stimulate the release of brain dopamine…Animal data suggest rapid dopamine transport…may be related to an increase in ingestive behaviors and obesity…
”Dopamine pathways are involved in reinforcing effects of food and nicotine…Smoking may stimulate pathways similar to those food stimulates” (emphases added).
And you thought “junk food junkie” was hyperbole.
Which Came First –
The Couch or the Potato?
This interference with the body’s dopamine neurotransmitting system isn’t limited to increasing food consumption that leads to obesity.
There’s solid animal and human evidence that the brain’s dopamine system is also heavily involved in our physical activities as well – affecting both our calorie intake and expenditure.
A comprehensive review of this subject found the dopamine system is affected by physical activity and also regulates physical activity at the motor function and motivation levels.
Describing the brain’s dopamine system as the body’s “cognitive-motor integration center”, researchers concluded the ability to properly produce dopamine directly affects your motor movement (hence its involvement with Parkinson’s Disease) and motivation and reward components of voluntary physical activity.
In other words, impaired dopamine production and regulation in the brain due to excess consumption of packaged foods may reduce motivation for physical activity. This, of course, is a prime contributor to excess weight and our urgent need for more effective weight loss solutions.
Cause and Effect?
So are there any other implications to this tacit acknowledgment by the FDA that depression and addiction can be integral components of overweight and obesity?
There are if you’re willing to look beyond treating obesity’s effects and consider equally the causative roles that addiction and depression can play as contributors to both overeating and poor nutritional choices.
In so doing, it’s hard to miss how integrated is our mental health with our physical health.
Indeed, to the extent that the vast majority of our spate of legitimate chronic disease epidemics are driven by poor lifestyle choices, it’s legitimate to argue that our mental health is often the key determinant of our physical health.
“Eating to live” is generally smarter, healthier, and saner than “living to eat”, especially when what you eat is as toxic nutritionally as our sad western diets.
But it requires a healthy mindset to begin with – and too many of us, it appears, have already fallen victim to the depressing and/or addictive effects of decades of poor nutrition. This makes healthy choices an actual choice only for those of healthy mind.
I certainly don’t have the answers (though I do have some suggestions for improving on even the healthiest diet in the works).
But bringing more front-and-center the mental aspects of our eating choices and behaviors – and activity levels, for that matter – can only prove a good thing. And not just for those searching for weight loss solutions, but for a healthcare system being stretched beyond the limits of affordability.
Maybe a drug that addresses these very aspects – both as effects and drivers of our obesity epidemic – can inadvertently cause us to consider other ways to engage these psychological linchpins to a slimmer, and healthier, future.
 Hooked on Food: Are you captive of a food addiction? medicinenet.com. 4/19/04.
 Relation between food reinforcement and dopamine genotypes and its effect on food intake in smokers. Am J Clin Nutr 2004; 80:82-8.
 Does the difference between physically active and couch potato lie in the dopamine system? Int J Biol Sci. 2010; 6(2):133-150.