Can Certain Foods 'Arouse' Your Brain?

Research shows overeating could be caused by specific brain activity.

ByABC News
July 27, 2009, 2:42 PM

July 28, 2009 — -- Wendy Wessler, who is divorced and lives on New York's Long Island, lost 150 pounds after gastric bypass surgery, but the weight is creeping back. She says she just can't understand why she can't say no to food.

"If I am upset or I am really stressed out, I just think I am going to get home to get a bag of chips," Wessler told "Good Morning America." "I just keep telling myself I should know better. I should be stronger, just as a person [says], 'You are intelligent, you shouldn't be doing this. This is not grown up behavior. This is child behavior."

Contrary to her opinion, Wessler's behavior is fairly common among adults, affecting an estimated 70 million Americans, according to former FDA commissioner Dr. David Kessler. Kessler too has struggled throughout his life with food compulsion.

In Kessler's new book, "The End of Overeating," he describes how the part of the brain the amygdale, which is the area of the brain that controls our desires, can affect overeating.

For most of people, when they see a tempting snack like a potato chip, it's the area of the brain will light up with activity and send feelings of anticipation and want. And once they start eating it shuts off. But for an overeater the amygdala remains activated while eating, creating that feeling of want, even after five, 10 or even 50 chips.

"We now know that the brains of millions of Americans are being excessively activated. Not everybody," Kessler said. "Let me give you [some] characteristics. Hard time resisting foods, a lack of feeling full, hard time stopping, a preoccupation, a thinking about foods between meals. And the foods that really arouse our brains are a combination of sugar, fat and salt, in other words, junk food."

Christine Zuccarelli overcame her struggle with food and became a dietitian, but she still feels the intense pull from some of her old favorite snacks.

"I call it food porn, because it excites me," she said. "It's something that gets me outside myself and I want more."

When overeater Mary Crean's favorite guilty pleasure, a Twix bar, is placed near her, she seems to lose concentration on a conversation as her mind floats to the chips.

"It calls to you," she laughed.

Similarly, Wessler said she becomes distracted when potato chips are placed in front of her.

"If there's something there that's edible, I cannot go about my business until I consume it," she said.

The Science Behind the Overeating Desire

According to Kessler, the food is actually causing a form of arousal.

"Intuitively, [Wessler] understood what we now know scientifically. Based on her past memories, past experiences, just looking at that label activated her brain circuitry. It causes arousal. It caused increased attention. It caused thoughts of wanting," he said.

Once the brain's attention is captured, for some people it's hard to let go, said Dana Small, a scientist at Yale University.

Small conducted an experiment which observed the brain activity of overeaters. She had them smell and then taste a chocolate milkshake, while recording brain activity through an FMRI.

Small noted there was an area of the brain that "should be shut off when you actually taste what you've been smelling."

"In people that are overweight or obese, the area's not being shut off. It's still so high," she said.

But there is something to the old saying "mind over body," Kessler said.

"One of the ways to cool down the power of that food is to look at food in a different way," he said. "We need food. Food has to be pleasurable. But I now look at huge plates of food, and I say, 'I don't really want that. That's not going to make me feel good.'"

It's a method that worked well for Greg Wells, 44. He lost 135 pounds in 14 months and said that now when it comes to food, he has the power.

"[The food] is like a Christmas ornament," Wells said. "Shiny and nice, but it's not edible."