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America's Food Addiction and the Science of the Munchies

What that late-night craving for fatty foods can tell us about the brain in the gut.

As any stoner who’s polished off an epic portion of late-night mac and cheese will tell you, marijuana can give you the munchies—so much so that pot is prescribed to stimulate the appetites of patients with AIDS-wasting syndrome and terminal cancer. Forget the dispensary: Now, scientists are unraveling the body’s remarkable ability to create its own endocannabinoids.

Basically, fatty foods get you high and give you the munchies, too.

In a study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers fed rats three different drinks and found that high-fat drinks caused cells in the small intestine to release endocannabinoids, our body’s natural marijuana-like chemicals. Neither the sugar nor the protein drink had the same effect. University of California, Irvine researcher Daniele Piomelli, who co-authored the study, explains that eating fatty foods creates a powerful positive feedback loop in our brains that further encourages overeating.

The research pinpoints the origins of munchies, but it also underscores the more serious subject of how the brain's reward systems can make food so addictive. Competitive eaters use that dynamic to their advantage. Companies selling food use it to their advantage, too. After all, if you design a food to light up our pleasure circuits and override signs our body sends out saying, “Stop! We’re full,” then we’re going to keep buying and eating that boxed mac and cheese.

Drug addiction treatments may provide an instructive model to treat food addictions. But in some ways, food is the harder beast to tame, because you can't just ask someone to go cold turkey, so to speak, and stop eating altogether. The task for scientists now: Cool the circuits in our brains that cause overeating without taking the pleasure out of everything.

Photo (cc) by Flickr user Arty Smokes

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