Obesity and the Dopamine Fallacy

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

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

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.
Neuroscience appears to have ignored this important knowledge and how it applies
to personal behaviors.

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 education and
average IQ of obese people? How does this 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?

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

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