Some researchers at the Yale School of Medicine have stumbled across what could prove to be a fascinating and enjoyable weight-loss strategy, but I get the impression that they don’t realize it. Here, oversimplified, is the background:
One school of thought among obesity experts holds that at least part of the blame belongs to something called a heightened drive of reward circuitry, which roughly translates as “the reward centers of your brain are hyper, and overreact to the experience of eating with exaggerated enjoyment.” Since this is the same mechanism that explains why some people become cocaine addicts, as opposed to social users, the researchers were looking to see if food could be, for some people, essentially a drug which they abuse.
The actual results surprised them. In the words of one researcher, “We found that increased appetite for food can actually be associated with decreased interest in novelty as well as in cocaine, and on the other hand, less interest in food can predict increased interest in cocaine.” What they considered most interesting about this was the notion that among persons with hyper reward circuits, those who aren’t attracted to food might be susceptible to drug addiction. In the words of another researcher, “…animals that have less interest in food are more interested in novelty-seeking behaviors and drugs like cocaine.”
I can understand why everyone’s attention might be reflexively drawn to the parallel between food-as-pleasure-source and cocaine-as-pleasure-source; cocaine is a hot-button word in the world of headlines, news items and Web searches. But the notion of cocaine as an alternative to obesity, or for that matter of obesity as an alternative to cocaine, seems to be something of a dead end. Perhaps that’s why the frequent use of the word “novelty” in the report, and especially the phrase “novelty-seeking behaviors,” caught my eye. What if overactive reward centers that lead some of us to addiction or obesity could be diverted by novelty? What if just emphasizing variety in your daily life could produce the same neurochemical rush or glow as a double bacon cheeseburger or line of coke?
Here’s the question I’d be asking if I were on the Yale research team: Are there people out there who are overweight or obese largely because their lives are so stupefyingly repetitious and routine that food is the only thing that triggers their reward circuits? It’s an intriguing line of speculation, to be sure, and someone with more ambition and guile than I have could probably wring a successful book out of it, something on the order of “Fritter Your Weight Away!” The basic premise would be that whenever you begin feeling the urge to nosh, you instead do something out of the ordinary, or something you haven’t done in years, or something on a slip of paper you pull out of a bag of random suggestions (they come with the book).
There would be an emphasis on going for a walk or drive, which not only exposes you to diversions and distractions, but puts distance between yourself and your kitchen. Hobbies offer tremendous potential for the novelty high, especially those that involve crafts or collecting. Then again, there might be people out there who would weigh 150 pounds more if it weren’t for jigsaw puzzles. The summing-up message of the book: Whoever you are, there could be something out there that will give your reward centers the same charge that food currently does; just start trying things, all manner of things, until you find it.
Unfortunately, like many studies that involve phrases such as “highly promising” and “unexpected,” this one was conducted on mice, a fact that always triggers my eye-rolling reflex when it comes to clinical research. So there might be no connection whatsoever between novelty and obesity in humans. But the only way to find out is to give the “constant variety” approach a try. You may not slim down, but at least, unlike with many weight-loss programs, you won’t be bored.
(By Robert S. Wieder for CalorieLab Calorie Counter News):
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