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There May Be an On-off Switch for Eating

  • Eating

Many disregulated eaters say they feel as if they have an on-off switch with eating. Now, it seems that researchers may have found evidence to back up this belief. At least in mice, there seems to be an open-shut valve when it comes to food.

Through experiments which compelled full mice to keep eating and hungry mice to avoid food, researchers have identified the cells that control our appetite switch. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill scientists used a laser on the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (or BNST) in the brains of mice to either excite or quiet them (Science News, 11/2/13, “On-off switch for eating discovered”). “When a laser activated these BNST neurons, the mice became ravenous…As soon as you turn it on, they start eating and they don’t stop until you turn it off,” says Garret Stuber, one of the study leaders. The laser also was able to silence a mouse’s urge to eat, proving that appetite appears to be regulated by messages that reach—or don’t reach—the lateral hypothalamus. Researchers don’t know yet whether these mice would have stopped eating on their own or continued until they became sick.

Says Stuber: “We think of feeding in terms of metabolism and body stuff,” he says. “But at the end of the day, it’s controlled by the brain.” The article notes that “This precise control of feeding behavior underscores the fact that eating disorders occur when brain systems go awry.” Of course, we don’t know if human brains will respond in the exact way that mouse brains do, but the conclusions from these experiments are interesting.

My point: How many of you think of your eating problems as stemming from a glitch in the way your brain works? In my experience, few to none. Instead, you insist you’re lazy, lack will power, are undisciplined, and have zero self-control. You make scathing moral judgments about yourself which only cause your self-esteem to plummet. There is good news and bad in accepting that you might have a snafu in your bran that causes you to overeat. The downside is that this view might make you feel helpless. The upside is not blaming your lack of will power if you overeat.

So, where does this leave you? Can you accept that some of your food problems might be brain-based, yet remain motivated to resolve them? Can you eat more “normally” while acknowledging that it might be harder for you than for other people? Can you find a middle ground that doesn’t blame you for your food problems, but still says you’re responsible for healing them? Remember that we can change our brains.