According to the American Heart Association, about one in three kids and teens in the United States is overweight or obese. Obesity can lead to chronic health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Obesity can even shorten your life.
You probably already heard this in the news. But, did you know that a diet high in saturated fats, refined sugars, corn syrup, and carbohydrates literally tricks our brains into craving more unhealthy stuff?
Brains React to Food
Most people don’t just consume food for “fuel” or energy. Most of us enjoy eating, especially our favorite foods. Science backs this up: Consuming tasty foods can satisfy the natural brain reward system, releasing the chemical dopamine in the brain to add to overall feelings of contentment and satisfaction. This is good for our survival since we have to eat to survive.
Overeating is different, but is also based in the brain. Scientists now understand that, for a growing number of people, certain foods trick the brain into wanting more. Pizza, French fries, chocolate, and colas are high on the list of foods that trigger dopamine.
In this way, food causes reactions in the brain similar to those caused by some drugs, like cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana, which also affect dopamine levels and lead to compulsive drug seeking and use.
According to NIDA Director Dr. Nora D. Volkow, “We are finding tremendous overlap between drugs in the brain and food in the brain.”
Steps You Can Take
It’s important to balance your diet with healthy choices and right-sized portions to ensure you get all the nutrition you need to be healthy.
Here are a few tips from Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Campaign:
Drink smart. Skip soda and other drinks flavored with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. Choose water—make it more exciting by adding a splash of lemon or a few mint leaves.
Move every day. Walk or bike to your destination. Turn off the TV and go outside.
Now you tell us: What do you do to eat well, keep fit, and stay healthy?
HBO's "The Weight of the Nation": Obesity on the Brain
SBB has talked a lot about how drug addiction is a complicated brain disease. But it’s not the only one. Obesity also involves the brain and is the subject of an HBO special that takes a serious look at this complex problem.
The 4-hour documentary series “The Weight of the Nation” covered everything from fatty liver disease in overweight children to how humans are wired to find pleasure in food to how our food supply has changed over the years. If you missed it in mid-May, you can go to HBO’s Web site and see it for free.
To get a better idea of the obesity problem, check out this creative infographic, “Obesity: Complex But Conquerable,” from the Institute of Medicine.
Our Brains: Wired To Find Pleasure in Food
You may see overweight people and wonder, “Why don’t they just stop eating so much?” If the solution were that simple, then nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population would not be either overweight or obese.
NIDA Director Nora D. Volkow, M.D., spoke in the HBO series about how brain science relates to obesity. She noted how early in human civilization, when a person’s survival depended on the ability to hunt and gather, our brains associated tasty food, like bananas, with pleasure, making it more likely that a person would climb a tree to get the fruit.
Today, that powerful connection still exists between food and pleasure, except now we don’t have to work so hard for our food. For some people, the rush of dopamine associated with eating a food they like may cause them to overeat impulsively—a brain reaction they cannot control, according to Dr. Volkow. It is a similar response to what happens in drug addiction when people compulsively seek and use drugs despite the negative consequences.
Nature AND Nurture
The documentary emphasized that our society—with its overabundance of fast food restaurants, massive portion sizes, and schools serving foods like French fries and pizza—makes it easy for people to make poor food choices. To reverse this bad health trend, we need to change our environment and make better choices.
Our stomachs, livers, and hearts aren’t the only organs affected by obesity—the brain also takes a hit. Dr. Volkow said, “Obesity negatively affects the function of the brain. The greater the problem of obesity, the less activity in areas of the brain that are extremely important for cognitive (thinking) operations.”
Find out more about what other experts from the National Institutes of Health had to say about obesity, and preview a clip from the documentary:
Thin at any Cost?
You only need to stand in a supermarket checkout line to realize our society is obsessed with how people look. Magazine headlines scream, “Guess Who!” next to a picture of a flabby stomach. Or they praise “So-and-So’s Awesome Post-Baby Body!”
Both girls and guys tell themselves that they need to be thinner or bulk up. The dangers and repercussions of steroid use are well known thanks to baseball and cycling scandals. Possibly less well known are the dangers of taking diet pills to lose weight.
Many diet pills are sold as “dietary supplements.” That means that these pills don’t have to meet the same strict standards—required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—as medications do.
So you might not know exactly how the ingredients in diet pills will affect your body. Some common diet pills contain combinations of different drugs, like both stimulants and depressants, and can really mess with your metabolism and even your heart. In addition, some of them carry mental health side effects, like depression or even thoughts of suicide.
In our supersized Nation, many people do need to drop a few pounds—safely, by cutting out excess fat and sugar and replacing them with fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, and lean protein. If you think you need to lose weight and aren’t sure how to start, talk to a nurse or doctor.
Tell us: Do pictures of thin or muscular celebrities affect your body image? What’s your favorite healthy way to stay fit?