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Then Kessler culled data from a major study on food habits and health. Conditioned hypereaters reported feeling loss of control over food, a lack of satiety, and were preoccupied by food. Some 42 percent of them were obese compared to 18 percent without those behaviors, says Kessler, who estimates that up to 70 million people have some degree of conditioned hypereating.
Finally, Yale University neuroscientist Dana Small had hypereaters smell chocolate and taste a chocolate milkshake inside a brain-scanning MRI machine. Rather than getting used to the aroma, as is normal, hypereaters found the smell more tantalizing with time. And drinking the milkshake didn't satisfy. The reward-anticipating region of their brains stayed switched on, so that another brain area couldn't say, "Enough!"
People who aren't overweight can be conditioned hypereaters, too, Kessler found -- so it's possible to control.
Take Volkow, the chocolate-loving neuroscientist. She's lean, and a self-described compulsive exerciser. Physical activity targets the dopamine pathway, too, a healthy distraction.
Smoking didn't start to drop until society's view of it as glamorous and sexy started changing, to view the habit as deadly, Kessler notes.
Unhealthy food has changed in the other direction. Foods high in fat, sugar and salt tend to be cheap; they're widely sold; and advertising links them to good friends and good times, even as social norms changed to make snacking anytime, anywhere acceptable.
Retrain the brain to think, "I'll hate myself if I eat that," Kessler advises. Lay down new neural reward circuits by substituting something else you enjoy, like a bike ride or a healthier food.
Make rules to resist temptation: "I'm going to the mall but bypassing the food court."
And avoid cues for bad eating whenever possible. Always go for the nachos at your friends' weekend gathering spot? Start fresh at another restaurant.
"I've learned to eat things I like but things I can control," Kessler says. But he knows the old circuitry dies hard: "You stress me enough and I'll go pick up that bagel."
Lauran Neergaard covers health and medical issues for The Associated Press in Washington.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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