Obese people actually may get less pleasure out of eating than their slimmer counterparts, according to new research from the National Institutes of Health. The new study, published in Molecular Psychiatry, found more dopamine activity in obese participants’ brain regions associated with habit-forming, and less activity in the areas associated with reward, when compared to their slimmer counterparts.
It’s not clear whether these dopamine activity patterns predispose an individual to obesity; it could very well work the other way around, in that obesity causes this change in brain chemistry. But the researchers say that it makes sense that a habit-based, mindless approach to eating is linked to more body fat. Says the press release:
Those differences could potentially make the obese people more drawn to overeat in response to food triggers and simultaneously [make] food less rewarding to them. A chemical messenger in the brain, dopamine influences reward, motivation and habit formation.
As lead author Kevin D. Hall, a senior investigator at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive Kidney Diseases, said in the press release: “This means that triggers such as the smell of popcorn at a movie theater or a commercial for a favorite food may have a stronger pull for an obese person — and a stronger reaction from their brain chemistry — than for a lean person exposed to the same trigger.” Future research could point to some interventions to help obese people reach a healthy weight, but for now, it’s more evidence that the obesity problem is more complex than an individual’s lack of self-control.