chocolate and obesity

Scientists Study the Behavioral Triggers in Obesity – Mice Love Chocolate Too.

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I can’t stop thinking about this article from the Centre for Genomic Regulation that I just read: Binge-eating mice reveal obesity clues. Okay, the title isn’t exactly jaw-dropping, but what it says is.

Scientists at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) and the Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) in Barcelona, Spain did a study showing that mice fed on junk food started feeding abnormally. When fed a diet of chopped up candy bars, the mice started showing addiction-like behaviors such as snacking, bingeing and unusual eating patterns.

Think about that. When fed a diet of chopped up candy bars, the mice started showing addiction-like behaviors such as snacking, bingeing and unusual eating patterns. Think about what that means. We’re talking mice here. They aren’t grabbing fast food on their way home from work because they had a rough day. They aren’t binging on pizza and beer because they are hanging out with the guys watching football. This isn’t a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and 3 glass of wine in your PJs Netflix marathon.  I mean, think about all the cliches we hear about on why people overeat – bad choices, emotional eating, too stressed, too much in a hurry, whatever… none of that applies. These are mice. And yet:

Working together with Cedric Notredame (CRG) and Elena Martín-García (UPF), the scientists found that as well as becoming obese, the mice started very early to show the signs of addiction-like behaviour and binge-eating in response to these enticing foods.

Okay, the fact the mice became obese is not surprising. That’s exactly what you would expect with a surplus of calories. But these animals changed their behavior in response to food. Seriously, get your brain around that if you can.

For example, when offered chocolate for just one hour per day, the animals will compulsively ‘binge’, consuming as much chocolate in one hour as they would over a whole day if it was continually available. They also showed inflexible behaviours, similar to those seen in addiction, choosing to wait for chocolate while ignoring freely available standard chow. Yet, at the same time, the chocolate did not seem to satiate hunger as well as regular food.

I am not too surprised that the animals binged. You can sort of see why that would happen from a biological standpoint, right? Sugary foods are high in energy and bodies need energy to thrive. It’s the same reason we crave sweet things. Our bodies want to store up energy. But what we are really talking about here is the mice acted differently around chocolate than their regular chow. For example:

The team found that animals on the high fat or chocolate diet also changed their daily routines. They were more likely to eat during the daytime – mice are usually nocturnal and feed at night – and they ate shorter more frequent ‘snacks’ rather than larger, longer-spaced meals.

You wouldn’t think – or at least I wouldn’t have thought – that the type of food would change animal behavior. The issues we have with high-calorie diets always seem so…. human.

A major problem in treating obesity is the high rate of relapse to abnormal food-taking habits after maintaining an energy balanced diet. The scientists evaluated this relapse and found that extended access to hypercaloric diets impairs the control of food seeking behaviour and has deleterious effects on learning, motivation and behavioural flexibility. (Emphasis mine.)

Extended access? Isn’t that what we call life? Drive down a major street. Step into a grocery store or gas station. Check out at a cash register. Access to hypercaloric foods couldn’t be easier. The scientists are working on additional studies, but really, we see it in ourselves all the time.

One part of me says this study shows that we need to cut ourselves a little more slack. How many people beat themselves up daily for these kinds of behaviors and blame themselves? How many people doubt their self-worth because they binge? Or feel terrible when they choose the chocolate ice cream over the bowl of fruit? But when we realize that biologically there is more going on here than willpower, maybe we can be a little kinder to ourselves.

It also tells me that getting these things under control is a lot harder than we give it credit for. It doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it, or it can’t be done – after all, we are cognitive, rational creatures, unlike mice, but at the same time, humans have engineered foods that can literally change the way we act. I feel like food scientists that work for the candy bar manufacturers are all high fiving themselves after an article like this comes out.

Personally, I find that rather motivational. I don’t want someone else controlling how I think or when I eat. Hyperpalatable foods just got a little less appealing for me.


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