Obesity and the Dopamine Fallacy

Neuroscience Adds Excess Weight to the Obesity Epidemic

Consciousness is the main factor in self-regulation.

The Flip Wilson Show was America’s second most-watched TV show for its first two seasons in the 1970s. In his role as the sassy Geraldine Jones, Wilson, a comedic genius, had a trademark line, “The devil made me do it,” that his character declared when she needed an excuse for her impulsive or questionable behavior.

Another trademark line is being trotted out, this time by neuroscience, to account for the nation’s obesity epidemic. Nobody is laughing, though we should, when they tell us, “The dopamine makes you do it.”

Yes, dopamine, we’re told, has taken possession of the brains of obese people and turned them into sugar and fat addicts, slaves of the midnight snack and prisoners of the cookery. “It’s not your fault,” they’re told, “the dopamine makes you do it.” Hang in there! Great minds are working on a pill.

Professor Gary L. Wenk, author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford, 2010), recently posted the essence of the dopamine explanation at the Facebook page for Psychology Today:

Initially, scientists assumed that obese people were simply addicted to food in the same manner that someone becomes addicted to heroin, i.e. food produces happy pleasant feels, and therefore eating lots of food would produce extremely pleasant feelings. Not so. A few years ago scientists discovered just the opposite was true; the brain’s reward center decreased its response to eating tasty foods. This induces people (and animals in experimental studies as well) to consume ever greater quantities of fat and sugar in order to mitigate the diminished rewards that were once experienced by consuming only one scoop of ice cream or a small donut.

The neurotransmitter in the brain for rewarding us for eating is called dopamine. Everything we do that is pleasurable requires the release of dopamine within the brain. . . . Needless to say, eating fat and sugar induces the release of dopamine. In both obese humans and animals dopamine function is significantly impaired. The key thing to point out is that this dysfunction occurs in response to many years of poor diet; dopamine dysfunction does not occur first. Our behavior leads to the dysfunction in this important pleasure-inducing neurotransmitter.

A recent study published in the Journal of Neurochemistry reported that dopamine’s normal function is enhanced in the feeding centers, leading to increased craving for high calorie foods, while its function is decreased in our reward centers, leading to a decrease in the pleasure that obese people can derive from eating tasty foods. Thus, ultimately, obese people are driven to eat more but enjoy it much less. The main value of this recent study is that it offers hope that one day it might be possible to correct this dopamine dysfunction with medication.

Prof. Wenk appears to have science on his side. Yet he and his colleagues are taking narrow findings from science and using them to make broad generalizations. For starters, science is finding only that dopamine dysfunction becomes a factor following “many years of poor diet” and that the brain’s reward center is experiencing less pleasure. It doesn’t follow from this scientific knowledge that dopamine dysfunction compels—or induces, as he puts it—obese individuals to eat more for the same amount of pleasure.

What exactly does he mean by that word induces (in the first paragraph of the excerpt)? Is he saying that people have no control or willpower at all? Are we driven solely by our impulses, cravings, and desires? Prof. Wenk’s article makes no mention of overcoming weaknesses of self-regulation through the personal attributes of courage, concentration, mindfulness, patience, and determination.

With our consciousness and knowledge we know that certain behaviors such as overeating reduce the quality of life and lead to health risk. What does it say about the consciousness of people who act against their own best interests? Psychological literature has a great deal of material on unconscious self-sabotage and self-defeat, and on many levels the world is reeling from self-sabotage with wars, financial distress, and global warming. Some scientists appear to have ignored this important knowledge and how it applies to personal behaviors. Certainly, some foods, particularly sugar, can produce an addictive-like effect. The cravings can be more intense with certain physical conditions such as adrenal fatigue. Yet increased self-awareness helps us to get to the heart of the problem, and to care more about our well-being, so we can moderate or eliminate the cravings.

In the excerpt, Prof. Wenk appears to equate human behavior with animal behavior. On what basis does he make this assumption? Where is the scientific evidence that animals trapped mercilessly in cages for experimental studies behave just like animals in the wild? The caged animals would of necessity be passive, and they would then be more likely to lack self-regulation.

Conceivably, the long period of poor diet or nutritional self-abuse that leads to dopamine dysfunction could in itself be reducing the conscious or awareness of individuals. What is the educational level of obese people and how does it compare to people who eat in a healthy way? What is the correlation between the passivity involved in not becoming well educated and the failure to take good care of one’s health? Are obese people, for the most part, inherently passive individuals encumbered with unresolved psychological issues and emotional weakness? What is the emotional weakness of those individuals who are dynamic and successful in life, except for their struggles with overeating? These questions are being ignored.

Dopamine dysfunction might be reducing the pleasure of consuming sugar and fats, yet there’s much more to the pleasure of eating than just the question of how tasty the food happens to be. We can feel pleasure because we care enough about ourselves to eat healthy food. We can feel pleasure in the self-regulation of eating moderate quantities. Pleasure is often only felt when it is registered consciously, for instance in absorbing beauty in nature and art. People who practice conscious eating, in which they slowly eat a moderate amount while fully registering the pleasure, feel satisfied and fulfilled with smaller food portions. We can also certainly feel pleasure because we’re slim, healthy and physically active and perhaps athletic. Why aren’t obese people accessing these forms of pleasure? This question needs to be addressed.

The world needs more consciousness, not more pills. With consciousness come wisdom, power, and self-regulation.

Higher consciousness involves awareness of one’s psychological weaknesses. This awareness raises one’s intelligence, in the sense of seeing the fuller picture of what’s involved in self-defeating behavior. In the case of obesity, common weaknesses include the following: unconscious injustice collecting; an unresolved emotional attachment to the feeling of refusal; an attachment to helpless feelings in the face of food cravings; the expectation of being a disappointment or being seen in a negative light by others; and the unconscious willingness to continue to experience familiar self-criticism and self-negation. Resolution of these psychological weaknesses is discussed in my books and in posts at this website.