6 January 2012,

Today, I am describing what ‘addictive behaviour’ really is, and how we can understand this in the context of eating and dieting behaviour. A timely lesson, I thought, given the time of year and our pressing need to forget all of that chocolate.

A recent article titled, ‘Food scarcity, neuroadaptations, and the pathogenic potential of dieting in an unnatural ecology: binge eating and drug abuse’ has led me to consider whether or not, as authors suggest, dieting can cause the same changes to the brain as during the course of the development of addiction.

An important point here is to understand of what ‘addiction’ is actually comprised. Addiction is a slippery concept. Are habits addictions? Are people with OCD secretly ‘addicted’ to their checking behaviours? Is my 14 hour work out week a secret dependency?


Addiction occurs when you favor one behavior in place of any other activity. One could call a strong commitment to one’s work life an ‘addiction’. Yet here lies a critical line in the sand: addiction will absolutely destroy your life. While workaholism may be a contentious issue, it usually brings in a pay cheque. So here is the litmus test: does the behaviour enhance your life? One could hardly say that drugs are life enhancing. The rapid changes that they induce in the brain further emphasize their utter futile role for a happy or productive life

How Do Drugs/ Pleasant Things Cause Addiction?

Individual susceptibility to addiction is still uncharted territory. We don’t know who will become addicted until it’s too late. This is yet another reason to stay away from drugs.

Step 1: Pleasure and Primary Rewards

The course of addiction can be described as a process that follows like this: you flood the brain with so much feel good hormone (dopamine), you experience euphoria.

Critically, this feel good hormone can be exploited in a variety of ways. Drinking when thirsty. Eating when hungry. Sex. Sleeping. The feel of a hot shower. Coming in from the cold. Those are all ‘primary rewards’ since they all enhance our likelihood of living for longer. Scientist use the term ‘hijacking of the reward system’ to refer to external sources of pleasure that do nothing for our survival, such as taking drugs, pornography, shopping addictions, gambling addictions.


Step 2: Remember

Over a few repetitions with the drug, you begin to encode (remember) the place, time, and feelings that you had before you ingested it. Over time, these cues begin to acquire a certain familiarity. They adopt a kind of Pavolvian hold over you: you begin to have ‘cravings’ perhaps when you didn’t want to, coincidentally around the neighbourhood of your dealer or hearing certain songs, or even certain smells that you incurred whilst you took the drug.


Step 3: Changes to Plasticity


The process I have described is seated in biological and physiological changes in the brain. We say there is a change to plasticity, because the brain can actually adapt to a variety of circumstance. When you flood your brain with dopamine, you engage in a lot of excitatory activity in the limbic system (ventral tegmental area, Nucleus Accumbens). Over time, the receptors to absorb the dopamine get tired. So they die. What you are doing, is killing off the most sensitive and important pleasure sensors in your head, and when you try the drug of choice again, its rewarding properties are intensely pleasurable, because you have fewer receptors to absorb all the excess dopamine.

Step 4: Addiction:

So, the more you do drugs, the most intensely pleasant they are, but this pleasurable activity lasts for a shorter and shorter time until eventually it isn’t nice feeling. You may need to do this to feel ‘normal’. You will also be more susceptible to the predictive cues associated with the drug, those things that reminded you of taking drugs, and this is beyond cognitive control.

No addict ‘wants’ to feel cravings (which could be considered physically painful, in addition to being psychologically disastrous), yet they persist. The cravings persist long after a person has been sober- people can fall into the throws of addictive behaviour months or even years of being ‘clean’.


What does this have to do with food? Or eating?


First, food that is high in sugar and fat elicits the release of endogenous opioids and dopamine. These are the feel good hormones implicated in addiction.


Second, the binge-purge cycle of dieting smacks ever so closely of the kind of behavioural pattern that addicts engage in. It’s one thing to have a few chocolates ever day. It’s another to eat bags of cookies in secret.


Dieting is a tricky issue. Personally, I don’t see any other way to lose weight than to cut calories. Yet, it would seem that the psychological distinction between what kind of eater you are is an important one. So, the style of diet upon which you embark will also be a highly individual undertaking: in other words, high protein diets won’t work for everyone, but they can work for some.


Authors of the current paper suggest that our 24 hour access to chocolate whip cream mochas is so extremely stressful, that it is causing the development of binge behaviours. In essence, by virtue the plethora of cakes and goodies, we all run the risk of developing binge eating behaviour.


Personally, I’m a little skeptical about that view.


Yet I do hope that before you rush to buy plastic coated detox pills that you consider the fact that the more extreme a diet/ detox is, the higher the likelihood you will ‘fall off the wagon’ for a variety of reasons. One of them may relate to the cravings that you’ll experience when confronted with pictures of cheeseburgers and desert carts at restaurants.

Monday, I will explain the study in detail, and why dieting (not ‘detoxing’ or self starvation) may have some intriguing benefits. I will also try to explain why we may eat bags of cookies, and how palatable food overrides the sense of satiety, making it impossible for you to maintain any kind of caloric deficit.


Until then, Good luck with the bran flakes and arugula.

2 responses on “Does Dieting Cause Brain Damage Part II

  1. It’s been established that white matter of the brain (miolin?) is 80% lipids and 20% protein. I have a low BMI of 20-21 and due to reasons of vanity, I prefer it that way, but am also phobic of brain atrophy, or cortical decay. How much fat is required to sustain optimal cognition? Is’nt the body capable of synthesizing most anything you give it into fat anyway? And does the body preserve the brain at all costs? ( i.e. : wouldnt vital organs have to fail before brain decay?)

    • maargi says:

      The body does preserve the brain at all costs, and a BMI of 20-21 is totally normal. If you were struggling with a BMI of 16 or 17, this would be an entirely different story.

      … There is increasing information supporting the link between less grey matter in morbidly obese compared to lean- I found this article on pubmed (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20668831), and it’s free access. The article looks at adolescents with Type 2 diabetes.

      A really nice article on this topic can be found here: http://www.bmjopen.bmj.com/content/1/2/e000175.abstract, and gets into more detail as to how the brain might be effected by the chronic stimulation of highly rewarding foods.

      I hope this helps, and thanks for your interest!



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