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Health & Wellness

The Binge Eater as Junkie

Researchers find similarities in food, alcohol, and drug cravings


Yo-yo dieters and people with eating disorders may suffer stress similar to that of drug addicts, according to Pietro Cottone and Valentina Sabino, codirectors of the MED Laboratory of Addictive Disorders.

As any dieter or bulimic will tell you, food can feel as dangerous and soul-possessing as a street drug.

Now a research team, including BU scientists, has shown that the brain activity of rats who binge on a sugary diet — “palatable foods,” in scientific parlance — and then are forced to abstain, is similar to the stress and anxiety addicts feel deprived of their drug of choice. Those feelings often lead to a relapse.

Eating disorders and obesity are multifactor afflictions. But “palatable foods are believed to play a major role,” says Pietro Cottone, a School of Medicine assistant professor and codirector of the Laboratory of Addictive Disorders (LAD) in the department of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics.

Cottone along with Valentina Sabino, a MED assistant professor and LAD codirector, and Eric Zorrilla, associate professor at the Scripps Research Institute, published their research in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Contributing to the paper were scientists from the University of Roma La Sapienza, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and biopharmaceutical company Neurocrine Biosciences.

Cottone defines palatable food as something acceptable to the taste. And while tastiness is subjective, he notes an evolutionary role: successful humans seek out nutrient-rich energy sources in the environment.

“We evolved over millions of years to defend ourselves against scarcity, and palatability helped us during this long process,” he says. “But now there is an abundance of palatable food. We don’t have to fight or expend much energy to find food. It’s easy. Palatability is now working against us.”

Palatable food remains a strong activator of the brain’s reward system, but in certain conditions he says there is “a shift from eating food for pleasure to eating food compulsively to avoid anxiety and psychological malaise.”

To measure the neurobiological response to abstention and relapse, Cottone and his colleagues studied the behavior of 155 rats, dividing them into two groups. The first ate standard chow for five days, followed by two days of a high-sugar, chocolate-flavored diet. The second group consumed only standard fare. In both cases, meals were unlimited.

After getting a taste of sweet food, rats in the first group were less motivated to eat standard meals, even refusing food that had been acceptable earlier. They also exhibited anxiety. When returned to palatable food, they overate, but their anxiety-related behaviors subsided.

Dieters often fall prey to this cycle, Cottone says, especially when they give themselves a “free day” in their eating schedule.

The research team then looked at the brains’ stress systems. They found that during withdrawal from palatable foods, the rats showed increased corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) gene expression and peptide in the amygdala, an area of the brain involved in fear, anxiety, and stress responses.

CRF is considered a key stress neurotransmitter, and when the team blocked the receptor, the behavioral consequences of palatable food withdrawal vanished.

While the research is in the earliest stages, Cottone says, the results of the study could translate into another weapon for dieters, and more important, for those struggling with stubborn eating disorders.

“We think we have found a new way,” he says, “a new hope we can work on.”

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.


6 Comments on The Binge Eater as Junkie

  • Anonymous on 11.20.2009 at 9:23 am

    I am concerned that this will become yet another opportunity for the psychopharmacological industry to make a killing with some pill, rather than understanding that the treatment must be for underlying causes.

  • Webster Webski on 11.20.2009 at 11:12 am

    After reading the following passage in the article I just had to laugh… how on earth the word “fatty” made its way there (rhetorical question)??

    “…Now a team led by BU researchers has shown that the brain activity of rats who binge on a FATTY, sugary diet — “palatable foods,” in scientific parlance — and then are forced to abstain, is similar to the stress and anxiety addicts feel deprived of their drug of choice…”

    It’s either the author didn’t bother reading the original study, or (and this is much more probable) he decided to sneak in the horrible “fat” word to make his conclusions more in line with the current low-fat common “wisdom”. If latter is the case, shame on him.

    The “palatable” (high sucrose) diet had 12.7% fat, the regular chow diet was 13% fat. Withdrawal from the HIGH SUGAR diet “was accompanied by increased CRF expression”, which “plays a motivationally relevant role in withdrawal syndromes for EVERY MAJOR DRUG of abuse, including alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, opiates, amphetamines, and tetrahydrocannabinol”.

    Translation: this study has shown that SUGAR (not fat) is addictive. SUGAR (not fat) cravings ARE real. Then, maybe, just maybe, “compulsive eating” could be caused by addiction to sugar and refined carbs in general? How about obesity? Heart disease? Diabetes? Metabolic syndrome?

  • Anonymous on 11.21.2009 at 2:04 am

    thank you for whoever pointed out the error in the article.

    unfortunately, fat is presumed unhealthy…fat, *if* consumed in the way nature intended, is essential for maintaining optimal health.

    *if* = now cows are fed corn, now milk is pasteurized, etc etc.

  • cdanilof on 11.21.2009 at 2:23 pm


    I stand corrected. “Fat” has been removed. No ulterior motive.


  • Ryan Waggoner on 11.21.2009 at 6:33 pm


    I can definitely relate to this…I ate tons of candy my entire life and just quit cold turkey about six months ago after I read In Defense of Food and some other similar books. One thing I immediately realized is that having a “free day” like the article mentions was a quick way to end up falling off the wagon. So now I don’t eat candy at all. Hasn’t been that difficult after the first few weeks.

    I highly recommend In Defense of Food:


  • Webster Webski on 11.24.2009 at 11:23 am

    @ "CD": Thanks for

    @ “CD”:
    Thanks for correcting the article, sorry if I sounded harsh.

    @ “Submitted on Sat, 11/21/2009 02:04 am”:
    Agree, quality of fat does matter, however there is grass fed meat out there and even raw milk, and free range eggs too. However, on the scale of things, it probably is not critically important. Take New Zealand or Ireland, where all meat is grass fed, same for cheeses and butter, but CVD rates are still relatively high.


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