Bad Intersection

Obesity at the Intersection of Stress and Rewards

Wu et alSome of the explanation for sharply higher obesity rates may lie at a bad intersection:  the corner of stress and rewards in the form of fatty, sugary foods.

Neuroscience research is drawing an increasingly clear picture of the relationship between highly-rewarding food and the biological response to stress. A vicious cycle presented well by Margaret Morris and colleagues in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews explains how these foods soothe the biological response to stress and simultaneously alter neurological mechanisms that regulate appetite and weight.

Animal research suggests that the result of a fatty or sugary diet is changes in memory function and in reward pathways that lead people to seek out more of the highly palatable foods formulated with excessive fat and sugar.

Other research suggests sugary and/or fatty foods can reduce the harmful effects of stress, but at a price. That price is an increased stress response when the comforting food is withdrawn.

Morris summarizes the implications of this emerging science:

Obesity should be viewed not only as a metabolic disorder, but as a multifactorial disease. Thus, strategies that focus on modulation of the reward system, reduction of stress reactivity and reverse compromised hippocampal function may be more effective than the currently available pharmacological approaches typically targeting appetite suppression. Overall, understanding the factors that increase the vulnerability of individuals to develop obesity is essential in developing more effective treatments.

As this understanding grows, we will see more ambitious research aimed at treatments to address more basic causes of obesity.

Click here to read the analysis in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.

Bad Intersection, photograph © josephdepalma / flickr

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2 Responses to “Obesity at the Intersection of Stress and Rewards”

  1. December 31, 2014 at 6:29 am, Pietro VAJRO said:

    simple & clear. congratulations for this niece piece of scientific knowledge. Pietro Vajro

    • December 31, 2014 at 6:33 am, Ted said:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment and for the encouragement, Pietro.