Dopamine and Urges to Binge

A recent brain imaging study, published in the journal of Obesity, showed the brain chemical dopamine may be a factor in binge eating (to read an article explaining the study in detail, click here.)  Dopamine – which is linked to reward and motivation – was found to spike when binge eaters merely saw or smelled a favorite food. Dopamine levels increased in the caudate and putamen regions of the brain – regions deep within the subcortex, the area I refer to in Brain over Binge as the “lower brain” or “animal brain” (to see a brain diagram illustrating these regions, click here.) 

    Researchers suggest that this dopamine spike “plays a role in triggering compulsive overeating/[binge eating].” If you’ve read my book, you know that I believe nothing can trigger binge eating. Brain chemical imbalances, in addition to many other factors, can certainly trigger urges to binge, but saying those factors trigger binge eating completely eliminates our free will. I think studies like this one, while useful in creating understanding, can serve to give binge eaters reasons why they do what they do without giving them practical solutions. 

     I think it would be more useful to rewrite the findings of this study to say: an increase in dopamine plays a role in triggering urges to binge. I believe this would help binge eaters realize that yes, their lower brain is misfiring; but they still retain the ability to choose whether or not to let those faulty brain signals drive their behavior. We are not slaves to our brain chemicals, and a spike in dopamine does not mean one is destined to binge.    

     Sure, dopamine “primes the brain to seek reward”(in a binge eater’s case, the reward is the temporary pleasure of eating large amounts of food), but an increase in dopamine does not move voluntary muscles (like the ones used for picking up the food, chewing it, and swallowing it).  Yes, abnormalities in the lower brain – most of which are created by a history of caloric restriction and by the binge eating habit itself  –  are ultimately responsible for urging binge eaters to binge; but those urges can be ignored and overcome.  And when we choose not to follow those urges over and over again, it acts back on our brains to erase those very urges and correct any binge-created abnormalities.

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