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Today, obesity is perceived as a global epidemic that global health organizations are struggling to contain. This sickly phenomenon is closely linked to economic development, which creates the perfect context for the “proliferation” of harmful eating habits such as binge eating.
To better understand how so-called obesogenic environments can lead to binge eating and promote obesity, Mara Dierssen, from the Centre for Genomic Regulation, and Rafael Maldonado, from Pompeu Fabra University – both located in Barcelona, Spain – decided to simulate an identical environment in the laboratory.
Obesogenic environments are defined by the researchers as ” the set of influences that the environment or living conditions have on the promotion of obesity in individuals or populations“.
The results of this trial were published as two complementary articles in the journal Addiction Biology .
Dierssen and Maldonado, with the help of their respective colleagues, created an obesogenic environment for rodents by offering them different feeding options.
The animals were fed regular food, i.e. the kind of food they would normally eat as part of a balanced diet.
The researchers added a mixture of chocolate pieces from a range of commercially available chocolate bars. They also added the option of a high-fat food.
Interestingly, once the researchers offered the rodents an abundant but unhealthy food alternative, it didn’t take long for the mice to start overeating, displaying addictive behaviors and thus gaining excessive weight.
In one telling case, the researchers gave the animals access to chocolate for just just 1 hour a day.
This time limitation led the mice to binge compulsively on the sweet mixture. In fact, in just 1 hour, the mice consumed the equivalent of what they would normally eat in a whole day.
And like people showing signs of addiction or binge eatingthe mice preferred to wait for the chocolate to be given to them rather than eat the regular food that was constantly available to them, despite the fact that the chocolate didn’t offer them the nutrients they needed, nor did it effectively reduce their sense of hunger.
What’s more, the mice who ate either chocolate or a high-fat diet began to show a distinct change in their daily eating routine.
Another interesting fact!
Mice normally prefer to eat at night, but these rodents began to eat preferentially during the day. They also chose to eat frequently, i.e. in the form of snacks, rather than regular, but larger and less frequent meals.
Researchers have noted that overweight people who try to shed pounds by following a diet or healthier eating habits, generally tend to relapse after participating in weight-loss programs or initiatives.
This pattern is a major obstacle when it comes to maintaining healthy eating behaviors.
Following the results of their experiments, Dierssen and Maldonado suggest that the main cause of these relapses could be explained by the fact that obesogenic environments alter people’s control over their eating habits.
As a result, they can easily fall into a vicious circle where one unhealthy choice leads to another, and so on.
“Our results revealed that long-term exposure to high-calorie diets impairs the ability to control eating behavior, leading to negative effects on the cognitive processes responsible for the rational control of food intake,” explains Maldonado.
Dierssen also notes that some metabolic diseases are not only the result of biological factors, but can also be caused by uncontrolled eating behaviors, and this is where health professionals should intervene.
“Obesity isn’t just a metabolic disease – it’s a behavioral problem. People who are overweight or obese are usually told to eat less and move more, but that’s too simplistic. that’s too simplistic.
We need to look at the whole process: by understanding the behaviors that lead to obesity, and by spotting the telltale signs early, we might find therapies or treatments to prevent overweight“.
The next step in Dierssen and Maldonado’s research will be to conduct further research into addictive behaviors, both in animals and in humans who tend to overeat.
“It’s very difficult to lose weight successfully, and many people end up trapped in a cycle of yo-yo dieting,” Dierssen points out.
“These studies reveal the key behavioral and cognitive changes promoted by hypercaloric food intake, which could be crucial for repeated weight gain and the difficulties of appropriate dietary control,” concludes Maldonado.