Obesity: eating disorders such as drug addiction

Obesity: eating disorders such as drug addiction

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How compulsive eating becomes an addiction

Most overweight people have gone through some diets, but after periods of abstinence, periods of excessive food intake and the notorious yo-yo effect often follow - the lost pounds quickly return. According to a recent study by the Boston University School of Medicine, these "cyclical patterns of over- and malnutrition can affect the brain's reward system and lead to compulsive eating."

Many people who are overweight and obese tend to eat compulsively and have regular diets during which they drastically reduce calorie intake to shed excess pounds. These diets often fail and there is a renewed phase of excessive calorie intake in the form of foods that are high in sugar and fat. This has a lasting impact on the reward system in our brain. The effect was similar to that of drug addiction and the changes could trigger further spurts of compulsive eating, the researchers report.

Activation of the reward system examined

The Boston University (BU) research team conducted a series of experiments on rats to test the reward system's response to high-sugar foods and normal foods. They also administered amphetamine to the animals to further test the sensitivity of their reward system. There was no significant activation of the reward system by the administration of the amphetamine in the brain of the animals that had access to high-sugar food, while a significant activation was found in the control group, the research team reports.

Severe disorders around the dopamine system

"After studying the biochemical and molecular properties of the mesolimbic dopamine system in both groups, we found that the experimental group had less dopamine overall, less dopamine release in response to amphetamines, and dysfunctional dopamine transporters that were due to deficits in their mesolimbic dopamine system." the researchers said in a press release from the BU School of Medicine. The study results were published in the specialist journal "Neuropsychopharmacology".

Changes in the brain like drug addiction

“Our data suggests that a chronic cyclical pattern of over-nutrition limits the brain's ability to feel rewarded. This leads to a vicious circle in which reduced reward sensitivity can in turn lead to more compulsive eating, ”emphasizes lead author Catherine Moore. The rats on a sugary diet showed "behavioral and neurobiological changes in the brain similar to those associated with drug addiction - in particular a breakdown of the reward system," adds Professor Pietro Cottone, who was also involved.

Vicious cycle of compulsive eating

"We are just beginning to understand the addictive properties of food and how repeated excessive consumption of high sugar can affect our brains and cause compulsive behavior," Professor Cottone said. The new study provides a better understanding of the neurobiology of compulsive eating behavior. According to the research team, compulsive eating may result from the decreased responsiveness of the reward system, and compulsive eating may further affect the responsiveness of the reward system. A vicious cycle that could have a significant part in the recurring yo-yo effect. (fp)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Dipl. Geogr. Fabian Peters


  • Catherine F. Moore, Michael Z. Leonard, Nicholas M. Micovic, Klaus A. Miczek, Valentina Sabino, Pietro Cottone: Reward sensitivity deficits in a rat model of compulsive eating behavior; in: Neuropsychopharmacology (published October 17, 2019),
  • Boston University School of Medicine: Study Provides More Evidence of Behavioral, Biological Similarities Between Compulsive Overeating and Drug Addiction (published: October 17th, 2019),

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