Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Food Reward: a Dominant Factor in Obesity, Part I

A Curious Finding

It all started with one little sentence buried in a paper about obese rats. I was reading about how rats become obese when they're given chocolate Ensure, the "meal replacement drink", when I came across this:
...neither [obesity-prone] nor [obesity-resistant] rats will overeat on either vanilla- or strawberry-flavored Ensure.
The only meaningful difference between chocolate, vanilla and strawberry Ensure is the flavor, yet rats eating the chocolate variety overate, rapidly gained fat and became metabolically ill, while rats eating the other flavors didn't (1). Furthermore, the study suggested that the food's flavor determined, in part, what amount of fatness the rats' bodies "defended."

As I explained in previous posts, the human (and rodent) brain regulates the amount of fat the body carries, in a manner similar to how the brain regulates blood pressure, body temperature, blood oxygenation and blood pH (2). That fact, in addition to several other lines of evidence, suggests that obesity probably results from a change in this regulatory system. I refer to the amount of body fat that the brain defends as the "body fat setpoint", however it's clear that the setpoint is dependent on diet and lifestyle factors. The implication of this paper that I could not escape is that a food's flavor influences body fatness and probably the body fat setpoint.

An Introduction to Food Reward

The brain contains a sophisticated system that assigns a value judgment to everything we experience, integrating a vast amount of information into a one-dimensional rating system that labels things from awesome to terrible. This is the system that decides whether we should seek out a particular experience, or avoid it. For example, if you burn yourself each time you touch the burner on your stove, your brain will label that action as bad and it will discourage you from touching it again. On the other hand, if you feel good every time you're cold and put on a sweater, your brain will encourage that behavior. In the psychology literature, this phenomenon is called "reward," and it's critical to survival.

The brain assigns reward to, and seeks out, experiences that it perceives as positive, and discourages behaviors that it views as threatening. Drugs of abuse plug directly into reward pathways, bypassing the external routes that would typically trigger reward. Although this system has been studied most in the context of drug addiction, it evolved to deal with natural environmental stimuli, not drugs.

As food is one of the most important elements of survival, the brain's reward system is highly attuned to food's rewarding properties. The brain uses input from smell, taste, touch, social cues, and numerous signals from the digestive tract* to assign a reward value to foods. Experiments in rats and humans have outlined some of the qualities of food that are inherently rewarding:
  • Fat
  • Starch
  • Sugar
  • Salt
  • Meatiness (glutamate)
  • The absence of bitterness
  • Certain textures (e.g., soft or liquid calories, crunchy foods)
  • Certain aromas (e.g., esters found in many fruits)
  • Calorie density ("heavy" food)
We are generally born liking the qualities listed above, and aromas and flavors that are associated with these qualities become rewarding over time. For example, beer tastes terrible the first time you drink it because it's bitter, but after you drink it a few times and your brain catches wind that there are calories and a drug in there, it often begins tasting good. The same applies to many vegetables. Children are generally not fond of vegetables, but if you serve them spinach smothered in butter enough times, they'll learn to like it by the time they're adults.

The human brain evolved to deal with a certain range of rewarding experiences. It didn't evolve to constructively manage strong drugs of abuse such as heroin and crack cocaine, which overstimulate reward pathways, leading to the pathological drug seeking behaviors that characterize addiction. These drugs are "superstimuli" that exceed our reward system's normal operating parameters. Over the next few posts, I'll try to convince you that in a similar manner, industrially processed food, which has been professionally crafted to maximize its rewarding properties, is a superstimulus that exceeds the brain's normal operating parameters, leading to an increase in body fatness and other negative consequences.

* Nerves measure stomach distension. A number of of gut-derived paracrine and endocrine signals, including CCK, PYY, ghrelin, GLP-1 and many others potentially participate in food reward sensing, some by acting directly on the brain via the circulation, and others by signaling indirectly via the vagus nerve. More on this later.

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