Munchies and Alcohol: Willpower or Wiring?

For some, pizza and beer always seem to fit hand-in-glove. Now there’s scientific evidence that explains why. New research reveals brain circuitry and not lack of willpower, could be the reason why people drink more at barbeques or get the munchies for junk food after a night out on the town.

With obesity and alcoholism being the leading chronic disorders in the United States, some Penn State College scientists were motivated to connect the two.

According to the researchers, eating excessive amounts of high-fat foods may activate the same circuits in the brain connected to heavy drinking. They presented their findings in April during the Experimental Biology 2019 meeting in Orlando, Florida. “We think a binge intake pattern is leading to a sensitization of that circuitry—or at least part of it—that’s further enhanced by the alcohol intake,” Yuval Silberman, Ph.D., who worked on the analysis, told Men’s Health. Scientists conducted their study on three groups of mice who had different ways to eat. All the mice had access to alcohol.

  • Group 1: “High-Fat Diet” had access to high-fat food but limited access to a mixture of water and alcohol.
  • Group 2: “Normal Diet” had a normal rodent diet and limited access to a mixture of water and alcohol.
  • Group 3: “Binge Diet” had access to high-fat food but ate regular food during non-access periods. Diet included alcoholic beverage.

The mice who were on the “Binge Diet” went through a weight gain and loss cycle associated with binge eating. They also drank more alcohol.

What’s fascinating is that the results suggest the same circuits in the brain that activate when eating high-fat foods will also direct you to continue by drinking alcohol. The study concludes eating a high-fat diet will promote binge-like eating habits signaling the brain to binge on alcohol as well.

Scientists have not performed the study on humans, but they hope their findings will aid in future research with obesity and addiction. They also say the results can “help people understand that things unrelated to alcohol use might result in susceptibility to a loss of control over alcohol use,” said Silberman.

The preliminary findings might debunk the theory that addiction and obesity are a moral failing and that changes in the brain may be to blame instead. It could also pave the way to breaking down the stigma associated with addiction that causes prejudice and discrimination against people who are overweight or dependent on drugs.

If you struggle with addiction and wish to seek help, you can contact the Board of Behavioral Sciences to get answers about how to select a therapist at https://www.bbs.ca.gov/ or with the Board of Psychology at https://www.psychology.ca.gov/. You can also verify a provider’s license at https://search.dca.ca.gov/.

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