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How eating motivated by pleasure affects the brain's reward system and may fuel obesity

On occasion, more than I like to admit, I indulge in a second helping of dessert despite being fully aware that I am not hungry. When I dig into my tasty bonus course, I know that satisfying my immediate craving will come at a price: either spending extra time at the gym or, painfully, having to decline sugary treats the next time around.

But research (subscription required) recently published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism shows that eating for pleasure, rather than to satiate hunger, could prove to be more costly than extended workouts and eschewing delectable dishes in the future. Giving into hedonic hunger, the researchers found, may alter our brain activity stimulating overeating, and possibly lead to obesity.

ABC News reports:

Italian researchers used cookies, cakes and tiramisu to find out why the food we love keeps us coming back for more. The reason: a bit like addictive substances, the taste activates reward signals in the brain.

"Our preliminary findings show that when a normal-weight healthy subject's motivation to eat is generated by the availability of highly palatable food and not by food deprivation, a peripheral activation of two endogenous rewarding chemical signals is observed," the researchers wrote in a study set to be presented at the 94th annual Endocrine Society meeting in Houston.

The researchers tracked plasma levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin and the marijuana-like brain chemical 2-AG in study subjects who dined on delicious or, well, disappointing meals. Those who ate from the "palatable" plate had higher levels of both.

The findings offer more evidence that drug addiction and obesity are based on similar underlying neurobiological mechanisms.

Previously: The brain's control tower for pleasure and Better than the real thing: How drugs hot wire our brains' reward circuitry
Photo by SuperFantastic

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