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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 24, Issue 5

Gluttony: Are We Addicted to Eating?

Humans who overeat may develop the same neural patterns as drug addicts do

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I am a glutton. Most Americans are, it seems: more than two thirds of the population is overweight or obese, and that proportion continues to rise, even as public awareness of the importance of healthy eating is at an all-time high. I know what a healthy diet looks like, and I certainly don't enjoy being fat, so why is eating less such a difficult process? It turns out that every decision we make about eating is influenced by mental and physiological forces that are often outside of our awareness and control.

The path to gluttony looks something like the following. We start with the occasional experience of eating too much—say five handfuls of chips instead of two or a huge helping of dessert, before realizing we are uncomfortably full. The way a particular food looks, tastes and feels in our mouth can trick our brain into eating well past necessity from an energy standpoint, and modern foods (think: processed, packaged goods) are especially effective at this beguilement. “The brain response to high-sugar, high-fat foods is much stronger than to foods found in nature,” says clinical psychologist Ashley Gearhardt, an addiction researcher at the University of Michigan. “In the food industry, they amp up that stuff to a point where our brain is really going to react.”

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