Tuesday, May 08, 2018 by Ralph Flores
Obesity isn’t just a problem with eating too much: Most of the time, there are behavioral triggers that lead to this condition, and learning to identify them will create new ideas to effectively combat the situation. This was the focus of a study led by researchers from the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) and the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF) in Spain. The results of their study, published in two back-to-back articles in the journal Addiction Biology, studied how an obesogenic environment, that is, the manner by which external factors – such as access to calorie-dense and pleasurable food items – contribute to obesity, affects a person’s feeding behavior.
In the study, researchers gave mice the option to choose between a high-fat “cafeteria” diet and commercial chocolate bars alongside their regular chow, then analyzed any changes in the animal’s activity and eating patterns. They found a disturbing cycle at work: The mice, aside from growing obese, had developed addiction-like behavior and were binge-eating after being exposed to the two food items.
The researchers, in particular, noted that the mice that were given chocolate for only an hour each day will “binge” on it, trying to eat as much as possible in the time allotted to them. In addition, they showed inflexible behavior – a trait usually seen in addiction – as they waited for chocolate and ignored standard chow that was available. However, eating chocolate did nothing to satiate hunger; thus, creating a vicious cycle. In terms of eating habits, they also observed a significant difference in mice that were provided with either a high-fat or the chocolate diet. They deviated from their regular feeding pattern, eating more during the daytime than at night, as most mice usually do, and ate shorter and more frequent snacks than larger, long-spaced meals.
The findings underscore one of the significant problems that scientists face in treating obesity, which is a relapse to abnormal food-taking habits after staying on an energy-balanced diet. According to scientists, this effect is caused by a person’s access to high-calorie diets, which can muddle with his control of “food-seeking behavior.” This results in a negative outcome in learning, motivation, and behavioral flexibility. (Related: Obesity, high cholesterol, blood pressure rates soaring so fast that conventional medication will become obsolete.)
“Our results revealed that long-term exposure to hypercaloric diets [impairs] the ability to control eating [behavior] leading to negative effects on the cognitive processes responsible for a rational control of food intake,” explained Rafael Maldonado, head of the Neuropharmacology Laboratory at UPF and a co-author of the study.
This adds evidence to the claim that obesity is just as much a behavioral condition as it is a metabolic disease. In a statement published in Science Daily, co-author Mara Dierssen of the Cellular & Systems Neurobiology group at CRG added that the approach to treat obesity by restricting food intake and asking people to move more is “too simplistic.” She also adds that a re-examination of the whole process is needed. “By understanding the [behaviors] that lead to obesity and spotting the tell-tale signs early, we could find therapies or treatments that stop people from becoming overweight in the first place,” she stated.
Researchers are now looking to extending their research to include a variety of animals, as well as studying further how “addiction-like” behaviors that they observe in animals can be translated to humans.
“We need to focus on preventing obesity, and this study shows us that understanding and modifying [behavior] could be the key,” Maldonado concluded. “These studies reveal the major [behavioral] and cognitive changes promoted by hypercaloric food intake, which could be crucial for the repeated weight gain and the difficulties to an appropriate diet control.”
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