God, what-EVER, media

There was a little teaser headline on the front page of the commuter paper this morning saying something like “Unhappiness linked to obesity!” The headline, when I opened the paper, was along the same lines. So I was bracing myself for some dumb new pseudoscientific study of how we’re only fat because we’re sad lonely compulsive eaters just trying to fill the holes in our hearts with food. Or how we’re only sad because we’re fat and nobody loves us which is our own fault because we can’t get control of ourselves.

Instead, I found a rather interesting study about how some people may overeat (and, in some cases, then proceed to get fat) because they don’t have as many dopamine receptors, so they don’t get as big of a dopamine kick from foods. In other words, they actually enjoy eating less than other people do, which leads them to eat more in order to seek the pleasurable response that naturally comes from food. You know, I really buy that. Obviously not all fat people eat compulsively or overeat, but I definitely buy that some people get less of a dopamine kick from the same activities — we certainly don’t all have identical neurotransmitter activity, any more than we all have identical metabolisms. And I buy that this can cause people to eat more. Having experienced sufficient pleasure from your food is as important a satiety cue as a physical feeling of being full — hence why people still want food, or want it more, after eating miserable dietetic junk, even if it has sufficient bulk to produce fullness.

It was intriguing. It deserved further study. It had absolutely nothing to do with unhappiness being linked to obesity. So why the hell was it being played like that, media? Were you too lazy to read what you just wrote?

Headlines aside, I’d actually be interested to read further studies on this. Particularly, I’m interested — and one of the researchers seems to be, too — in finding out whether dieting behavior actually increases the problem by fucking with your brain chemistry. Don’t you just bet it does permanent damage to your dopamine receptors, requiring you to eat more and more (or engage more and more in other compulsive activities) in order to get the same pleasure? It seems plausible, given how joyless dieting makes you (“Unhappiness Linked to Dieting!”). I want to see data!

I think there are risks to treating overeating as an addiction, because it’s so easily generalized to treating all eating as an addiction. But that’s nothing new — people have been treating overeating as an addiction for ages. This study gives me hope that they’ll at least treat it as something with an addiction-similar brain mechanism, NOT just some kind of personal failure to cope. I don’t want people to assume I’m a compulsive eater just because I’m fat, so I dislike the conflation — though the HealthDay report is at least marginally okay about distinguishing overeating, and even a tendency to gain weight due to overeating, from simply being fat. But if people are going to assume a compulsive overeater anyway, I’d like to at least endure that with the knowledge that actual compulsive overeaters were being treated with an evidence-based scientific understanding of the neurological underpinnings of their habits — not just dismissed as emotional fuckups.

43 thoughts on “God, what-EVER, media

  1. Yeah, I’ve read several writeups about this study, and they’ve all seemed to play it the “now we know why fat people eat so much” way, which is disappointing. I think this could lead to useful treatments for some eating disorders…..but it troubles me that the tone, as usual, seems to be sending the message that, you know, people just have to *overcome* whatever genetic obstacles to being thin their bodies have been cursed with.

  2. I’d be interested in seeing a study to see how dieting impacts the dopamine. I can say without a doubt that now that I haven’t dieted in some time, I can find pleasure in smaller amounts of food.

  3. Maybe not “unhappiness,” but it could be linked with depression…doesn’t that have something to do with dopamine and etc. a lot of times (not that one would CAUSE the other)?

  4. I’m so glad you wrote this. I saw the yahoo story about it and couldn’t bring myself to finish it. Okay, even really start it. I’ve been feeling shitty about myself lately, brought on by one of my unexplained, fairly excessive weight gains, and just couldn’t stand reading about how it was all my fault, blah blah blah. Now I will have to go read it.

  5. Actually, this is probably why I binge eat. I’ve always eaten a lot and eaten frequently (the frequency is due to hypoglycemia) and done mini-binges. When I was younger I had a super fast thyroid and was thin regardless of what I ate but I always hated myself because I ate so much. Now I’m on anti-thyroid meds (Graves disease) and eat a whole lot less and am comparatively fat. I still eat much more than I really want. And, mostly, the food doesn’t even seem to taste that good or give me much of an emotional boost though I know that’s why I’m eating. So, after reading this I’d guess this is why I don’t get the “high” from eating. I think, actually, that it’s gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. I think that if I ate *enough* when I was younger it would boost my mood and I think I keep trying to get that feeling back. I’ve also noticed that I don’t seem to have an exercise “high.” I’ve read about them and it sounds wonderful but I don’t seem to get a real mental boost from exercise either. When I exercise regularly I feel better overall and when I get done exercising the endorphins have kicked in and my arthritis doesn’t hurt for a little while but I don’t get a “high” out of it. Which is probably why I’ve never really enjoyed exercising all that much. I do suffer chronic depression and I’m deeply depressed on 20mgs of Lexapro but at least I can actually function on a day to day basis when I’m on it, so my brain chemistry is pretty fucked up anyway.

    I love this site. I always learn something and I love the contributors and commenters and just the general atmosphere but this is a real revelation to me. Thanks!

  6. Interesting. My father had Parkinson’s which is caused by the brain not creating enough dopamine. Throughout my life he was almost always munching on something. Come to think of it, he really was a lot happier after eating.

    Now his receptors were fine, it was his natural dopamine creation that didn’t function, so it’s not quite the same. But I definitively see the sense in it.

  7. I think what I choose to eat is intimately tied to how we’re feeling. Different foods are different for different people, but when I’m deeply unhappy, I crave pleasure foods – not always calzones and fried chicken, but sweet potato pie and mangoes, candied carrots and roast winter squash. (I notice all those have significant beta carotene, too – coincidence?) But also I tend to wait longer to eat when I’m feeling bad about my weight, and so my body tends to switch from being fine with chicken breast to demanding pizza and cookies.
    I think letting go of some of that would help me eat better and feel better.
    I’m a long term intermittent depressive anyway, so I have no doubt that my dopamine receptors are screwed up.

  8. I’ve seen this article around and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I was definitely conflicted on the point Tari made above(“now we know!”). Thanks, fillyjonk, for explaining it the way that you did – I can certainly see how this could be an explanation for some people.

    For example, during my luteal phase when progesterone is high and dopamine is low, I am an eating machine and eat much beyond fullness for a good three days; however, the rest of the time I am generally able to eat more intuitively. Granted, this requires much more effort than it did pre-ED and years of dieting. I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes.

  9. “Unhappiness linked to obesity!”

    This is just my guess but maybe obese people are unhappy because they are being made to believe they are ugly, worthless and unattractive by the very same people who are telling them they’re unhappy because they are obese.

    Just my guess. Really.

    Anyway, the dopamine thing could have a good point. Meanwhile, food isn’t the only thing that gives you a dopamine high – an orgasm does, too. So does that mean all fat people have a high sex drive?

  10. Crap, I can’t edit that. I just realized I should replace ‘all fat people’ with ‘all dopamine-receptor deprived people’ (and that these can be two completely unrelated groups of people) since that was the point… *feels like a dummy* Think before I type, think before I type…

  11. Huh, related to Dorothy: if people can have different amounts of pleasure from food related to dopamine, do you think we can also get different amounts of pleasure from exercising or other various dopamine-producing activities?

    Getting less pleasure from exercising than the next guy (or at least certain kinds of exercising) might explain some people’s aversion to the gym or jogging or whatever . . . but it certainly won’t explain away fatness.

  12. I definitely get less pleasure from exercise — I’ve never in my life had an exercise high. I also have a history of depression, from the time I was a child. I do wonder if dopamine receptors have anything to do with it.

  13. I can’t speak to the merits of the article or not but did want to put in some explanation as to why the article may be spun one way and yet be written in a different one. Copyeditors write the headlines; reporters do not. As a reporter I can tell you there have been plenty of times where the copyeditor clearly did not read what I just wrote and writes a headline that is completely wrong. I’m not trying to make excuses for anyone, but that is how it is in the news world — the copyeditor (or whoever is in charge of pulling a story off a newswire, which would explain any weird headlines on Yahoo! or something) reads the first paragraph or skims the whole article, and then comes up with a headline to boil it down into something that’s both eye-catching and easy to understand. Unfortunately they sometimes get it wrong.

    Just wanted to make that note!

  14. (May I just note that post of Kate’s you linked in here is awesome? Holy shit. So awesome. Sharing widely with so many women I know who believe they are sick and fucked up and broken because they, you know, EAT. Missed it at the time.)

  15. This is very interesting indeed. And I can imagine you might find something similar with exercise (you know, like why some people get amazing runner’s high really quickly and others don’t), though that’s purely speculation on my part.
    Just found the actual abstract on the Science website here:

    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/short/322/5900/449

    So yeah, it does talk about obesity (they use obese/lean as their two study groups), which would probably be why the news sources picked that part up.

  16. There’s more about the study in this week’s Science mag podcast.

    While it’s great that they are starting to piece together some of the neurochemistry involved in hunger and eating, I suspect that people will be slow to accept the idea that overeating might be due to something other than “lack of willpower”. Hell, I still hear people say that about smoking and alcoholism and the information about those addictions have been in the public eye for many years.

  17. According to my Psych 111 course, that’s actually one of the ways that clinical depression is measured. When your dopamine gets low, you’ll overeat to get the same response–but if it gets even lower, you won’t get that response no matter how much you eat, which is why a lot of severely depressed people just stop eating.

  18. I definitely get less pleasure from exercise — I’ve never in my life had an exercise high. I also have a history of depression, from the time I was a child. I

    I’ve often wondered if that’s a myth. If you say you get an exercise high, I’ll take your word for it, but it’s something I’ve never experienced. Consequently, the only exercise I like involves stretching, which feels good in itself, and nature walking, for the pretty.

  19. I don’t know that I’d call it a high, but I have felt pretty exhilarated during and after exercise — during a vigorous walk on a crisp day, or at the end of a really good Pilates workout, I feel SO GOOD. So, if that counts as a “high,” it’s not a myth.

    The sufficient pleasure thing is really interesting to me. Ben & Jerry’s used to make a cranberry orange sorbet, and it tasted so amazingly good, and I noticed that I never really felt the need to finish my scoop. I got all the pleasure I needed by mid-scoop, and then I was generally just…done.

  20. I’m one of the unfortunates who suffers from exercise depression rather than exercise high. Although only under certain circumstances.

    If I do slow-and-steady exercise, I am absolutely fine. If I do anything like really active sports that get adrenalin pumping, I’m okay while I’m doing it but afterwards I crash HARD, feel like I want to die, and stuff my face with cookies. Blood sugar wobble, I guess?

  21. It sounds like a probable explanation for why people who diet eventually break down and eat “bad” foods. And from my personal experience with dieting, I would inevitably binge on junk food when dieting. Just another example that your body does not want to lose weight and will go to great lengths to sabotage any diets.

  22. I never got an exercise high in my life until I tried cross-country skiing. Soccer, jogging, running, swimming, going to the gym, everything else does little or nothing for me, but for whatever reason winter sports hit my buttons.

    I remember turning to my stepmom and saying, “I feel so energetic! And- happy? It’s really weird,” and her replying that it was endorphins. It was a total lightbulb moment- “Oh, so that’s why other people enjoy sports!”

    Which just goes to show that our bodies are different, and respond to different things. Wish I’d figured that out before berating myself for being “wrong” for so long.

  23. I love the title of this post.

    I think one way that dieting might impact dopamine receptors would be to blunt them so that more food was needed to create the same feeling of satifaction from more food as the body attempts to recover from what it perceives as starvation.

    I think that how “overeating” gets defined is just as problematic as “overweight” — eating over what amount? How do we know how much to eat? What satiety is for me is different than it is for anyone else. Sure, there are some foods that I’m more likely to eat beyond mere satiety, but the same goes for people who are thin. When recovering from a period of dieting, the body may drive someone to eat more than then did before until the body is back where it wants to be. The amount of conscious control is minimal, at best.

    My feeling is that hunger is such an essential, important drive, and hanging onto what the body perceived as hard-earned reserves so important, that there are thousands of ways that our bodies do this. “Fixing” one pathway doesn’t mean that there aren’t a thousand other ways that our bodies can compensate.

    And I want more research that shows what works to help fat people stay healthy, since we are indeed not just thin people encased in fatness.

  24. And I want more research that shows what works to help fat people stay healthy, since we are indeed not just thin people encased in fatness.

    HELL, YES, wellrounded! I just had an appointment with my wonderful GP, who has, honest to Bob, never brought up my weight, except to tell me he wasn’t worried about it if I wasn’t. Anyway, he had a bunch of tests drawn, and referred me for ultrasounds and imaging and all this stuff to monitor the status of my endocrine system. (Synopsis, it’s fucked up, my ovaries, pancreas, and thyroid just don’t seem to be doing their jobs.)

    And even my fabulous wonderful doctor straight up admitted to me that though PCOS, diabetes, and hypothyroid seem to be related in some way, nobody has bothered to look into how they interact, and he just doesn’t know as much as he wants to about intersectional treatment of them, because he wants to be able to give the best treatment to patients with all three, of which, there are apparently many.

    It just makes me want to scream. There are so many people who actually think that PCOS and diabetes are caused by fat, and that hypothyroidism doesn’t actually exist. (Yes, I have heard this theory, apparently, it’s a made up excuse to be fat.) Are they not bothering to research these things because they so often happen to fat people? AGH!

    Sorry I got worked up for a minute there. I’m very bitter that I wasn’t blessed with a functional endocrine system.

  25. Not everyone can make sense of the ways our brain and body’s function, it is tricky, it was Robbert that reminded me that less receptorsnot the same as less dopamine itself.

    The issue about addiction is important, using the addiction model for eating, is an utter bust, it’s simply not appropriate.
    Eating is vital for everybody, a central facet of being alive in a way addiction simply isn’t. Compulsive/binge eating is no more an ‘addiction’ than hyperventilation is ‘addiction’ to breathing. Vital functions, have the capacity to speed up and slow down, compulsive eating is the ramping up of the normal eating urge to a higher setting if you like, whereas addiction centres on reduction of reward/pleasure chemicals, due to them being added to, IOW, you take in say opiates and your body adjusts to that by lessening its production of them. If you got a financial allowance or inheritance, you might work less hard than you otherwise would have. Different processes, although funnily enough though, theoretically, something that could cure addiction, might also help with compulsive eating, because of this lesser amount of receptors thing. It would probably not be curing the cause, merely taking away something that maybe facilitating the bingeing.

  26. Interesting.

    I’ve dealt with depression for as long as I remember, mom-of-the-year even locked me up in a hospital at 10 (had my 11th birthday in that place) for it so I know my dopamine levels are all screwy and I definitely relate to the eating more to get pleasure. It makes so much sense now because all my life I’ve heard people call me an emotional eater but I couldn’t identify with that because it really didn’t give me the kind of pleasure they seemed to think it did.

    I am now in the process of trying to retrain my brain to get more pleasure from less food because I’m unhealthy and I need to get control. Maybe this study can be examined further in how those of us that deal with this can eat to give us the pleasure that others seem to get. I’ve found that using spices and varying up the foods I eat seems to help but that’s during the up-side of my depression cycle, I don’t know yet how I’m going to manage when the low comes and I’m too lethargic and uninterested in my life to care about putting the effort into it.

    That’s probably way more than I needed to say so I’ll just stop there. I am glad you posted this, gives me something to think about now that I realize there is a correlation. Thank you.

  27. Was this in the Express? They probably meant to say something about depression and neurotransmitters that was only vaguely linked to the study, but forgot to add it before it went to print :-P

    Otherwise, sounds like the study was interesting and the article was moderately inane, as is usually true with science reporting.

  28. “I think that how “overeating” gets defined is just as problematic as “overweight” — eating over what amount? How do we know how much to eat? ”

    I would say that when you are eating all the time for emotional and psychological reasons, rather than hunger, and when you eat so much you are physically sick, that is overeating.
    Defining it may not always be easy, but it does exist, and there are ways of knowing when you are overeating.

  29. That’s interesting – Ritalin and other stimulants used to treat AD/HD suppress appetite and can cause weightloss. They also increase the amount of dopamine in the brain by inhibiting the reuptake of dopamine.

  30. Now Stephanie, that makes sense.
    I’ve always been really thin, and I’ve always wondered why a lot of people just don’t seem as EXCITED about food as I do.
    And, there are some sports that are like god-touching meditation for me. {It’s so weird.}

  31. AR, I didn’t mean to suggest that there is no such thing as overeating. I apologize if that’s how what I said came across.

    I will think a bit more about how to phrase what I was trying to say. I guess that each of us is wired differently, and some of us might not be perceiving what we eat as making us ill or being more than we need but still be enough to lead to weight gain or maintaining a higher weight.

  32. I’ve found that using spices and varying up the foods I eat seems to help but that’s during the up-side of my depression cycle, I don’t know yet how I’m going to manage when the low comes and I’m too lethargic and uninterested in my life to care about putting the effort into it.

    If I understand your interpretation April, you are saying that when you have more energy, you can eat with more care and this might make it more enjoyable.

    Maybe it is that you are less depressed and that’s what makes food more enjoyable, as well as giving you more energy.

    This is why I have a problem with the kind of sentiment behind AR’s statement:

    I would say that when you are eating all the time for emotional and psychological reasons, rather than hunger, and when you eat so much you are physically sick, that is overeating.

    Strictly speaking, this is ‘overeating’- eating more than you otherwise would (if you weren’t down), but it is also performing a vital purpose; just not that of nutritional need, but it may be preventing someone from lapsing into such a deep depression that they cannot sustain their own life. So in a sense, it is performing a similar role to that of nourishing the body. So is it overeating if not eating that amount could remove an obstacle to ending your life by other means?

  33. According to my Psych 111 course, that’s actually one of the ways that clinical depression is measured. When your dopamine gets low, you’ll overeat to get the same response–but if it gets even lower, you won’t get that response no matter how much you eat, which is why a lot of severely depressed people just stop eating.

    aebhel, that explains something. My doctor missed my depression back in the 90s because I was eating more and falling asleep by day. Turns out that’s what they now call ‘atypical’ depression, the opposite of the classic off-your-food and not sleeping kind. Does dopamine explain the different sleep patterns too, I wonder?

    I seem to recall a claim a few years back that there was such a thing as a ‘food orgasm’ – i.e. a moment when you reach maximum pleasure and satisfaction from food, just as you reach a peak of sexual pleasure at the point of orgasm. Probably way oversimplifying things – they’re two very different bodily functions, even if they do involve the same chemical – plus, it was a bloody diet book, not an arena renowned for your actual science.

    And, a biochemist of my acquaintance told me that the so-called ‘endorphin high’ of exercise is not down to endorphins but to adrenaline. Makes sense, because apparently endorphins are what give you the amaaazing feeling you get immediately after an orgasm, and no amount of exercise has ever made me feel that good.

  34. This is an interesting post – I need to do some more research on the topic.

    I classify myself as an emotional eater and sometimes I fear I’m addicted to food (or certain types of food).

    I have a long history of depression (something noted by others in this thread) and I think that is connected to my eating habits. Once I hit my 20s my eating habits slowly started getting out of whack. Now I’ve reached the stage where very often I literally cannot stop thinking about food – especially junk food like chips (crisps) and chocolate. Sometimes I eat so much junk food I literally feel ill and bloated afterwards. I’m making slow progress in cutting down on the junk food but it is definitely still a problem.

    When I’m feeling down I eat to make myself feel better. While I’m eating I do feel better, but that feeling only lasts a little while and I seem to need to eat more to get the same “high”.

  35. Very interesting study! With an article that made no sense, as usual! It’s sickening how every article about every study pertaining to weight or eating twists things around to the conventional agenda.

    I get almost zero pleasure from food, and I’ve always thought it was due to some kind of hormonal imbalence. I get ‘full’ (and nauseated) too quickly. I wish so much I got the pleasure from eating that almost everyone I know does. It seems to me I’m missing out on one of the great joys in life.

    I pay a lot more attention to what I eat now and have a lot of coping mechanisms to ensure I get enough (meal planning, distracting myself with a book or tv, eating small amounts of many different kinds of food at a meal so I will eat more, taking a sip of water before I swallow to ease it down – I tend to gag), but for most of my life I ate only just enough to satisfy hunger pangs, which was definately NOT enough to keep my body healthy and functioning normally.

  36. To be honest it sounds to me like they are setting the public up for another diet drug. First establish the “scientific” basis, then come out with the pill. With fen-phen it was serotonin. And look what a disaster that turned out to be. I regard ANY article on obesity that hits the major media outlets with suspicion. There usually part of some PR or marketing campaign. Public t.v. and radio is not immune either. The Robert Woods Johnson Foundation sponsors the MacNeil Leher newsletter and their medical segments read like pharma commercials

  37. As I’m also a reporter, I was going to mention what Meghan said. We don’t put our stories on the page, so we don’t know how much horizontal space needs to fill the hedline space. Even if we put a suggested hed up there, copy editors often have only just enough time to scan the article and try and come up with something that fills the space they have in a few seconds — hoping that people will read the article for the full story. In this case, for instance, how would you have done it better? (And I’m not saying that to be sarcastic.) “Fewer pleasure receptors linked to obesity”? “Less enjoyment from food leads to obesity”? Granted, I’m a horrible hedline writer, but I can’t see an easy — and accurate, and FAST — way to fix this one.

  38. Having grown up with an obese mom, I think it’s safe to say she definitely was a compulsive eater. My sister and I have both been plagued by compulsive/addictive behaviors our entire lives. Ironically, not when it comes to food. Perhaps we fought extra hard to prevent that from happening.

    Societies attitudes about addictions and compulsions needs fine tuning. I think ideas such as “blame” as “fault” are not very useful. Perhaps they are appropriate ideas, perhaps not. Either way, I think the thing that we all loose site of is this… maybe it’s okay not to be perfect? Maybe it’s okay to screw up, be compulsive and weak at times, and to have problems? Life is tough, you know, and people deal with it in different ways. Our society is simply so judgemental.

    As the same time, I’m uneasy with the 12-step ideas of powerlessness and the “disease” model in general. Having more or less completely screwed my life up with alcohol, and having finally gotten things straightened out a bit, I can truthfully say now, with a bit of hindsight, that yeah, I WAS responsible for a lot of the crazy crap I did.

    I think the truth about addiction/compulsion is far more complicated than any of us realize. It lies on the fringe of ideas about freewill and determinism. Just like light can appear to be a wave and a particle, maybe addiction can have different interpretations in different circumstances.

    Regardless, we would all benefit from minimizing all the judging we do.

  39. @wriggles

    I don’t think using terms like addiction and/or compulsion is inappropriate at all. Overeating and compulsive eating can definitely be viewed at as a so called “behavioral addiction”. The term addiction is misunderstood and fraught with baggage, which is sad.

    If you wikipedia it you’ll find it’s simply described as: any behavior someone engages in regularly due to cravings, despite negative consequences. Sometimes tolerance and withdrawal are thrown in, and this is what makes it different from compulsion. Growing up with my mom and watching her diet, I have no doubt she experienced tolerance and withdrawal.

    Many people think of addictions and compulsions as resulting from the pleasure-reward circuitry of the brain getting hijacked and out of whack. Well, eating and sex are two behaviors that are evolutionarily intimately connected with the pleasure-reward circuit. The idea that they could get out of whack seems pretty understandable and straight forward. Far more understandable than some of the other “behavioral addictions” in fact.

    I was a sex “addict” and an alcoholic for years and years. I use “was” because I’m not convinced of the need for life long identification. The similarities between the two was so remarkable that I don’t even distinguish them, really. I think it would be more appropriate to simply say I was “addicted”, to virtually anything that felt good, and some things that didn’t.

  40. Sorry I didn’t check back on this thread earlier

    it is also performing a vital purpose; just not that of nutritional need, but it may be preventing someone from lapsing into such a deep depression that they cannot sustain their own life. So in a sense, it is performing a similar role to that of nourishing the body. So is it overeating if not eating that amount could remove an obstacle to ending your life by other means?

    I believe you just described a coping mechanism. Which is exactly what compulsive overeating/binge eating/food addiction is for most people who experience it. At least most in my experience.
    There are lots of things that serve as coping mechanisms. Cutting is a coping mechanism. Drug and alcohol addictions can be coping mechanisms. Et cetera. Or maybe a better analogy would be a sex addiction, like Jeff points out. I think that is a good comparison. Because sex and eating both are completely normal activities, but there can be a point where it because a harmful coping mechanism for some people.
    I think it’s being overly simplistic though to just say that a coping mechanism serves a functions. Of course it does! Why else would we do these things? But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to find other ways of coping and dealing with underlying issues.

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