Are You Addicted to Food?

By Rachael Moeller Gorman, "Addicted to Food?," March/April 2011

Food can enslave the brain just like drugs can. Dr. Nora Volkow’s research may help you take back control.

The Makings of a Pioneer

If you were to imagine a person whose pedigree and character destines her for a key leadership role, an NIH director, say, you might picture someone quite like Nora Volkow. Volkow’s great-grandfather was Leon Trotsky, the famous Russian revolutionary who defied Stalin, only to later be murdered in exile in Volkow’s childhood home in Mexico City. Her mother, a Spanish fashion designer, died several years ago, and her father is a chemist who still lives in Mexico. Nora Volkow herself graduated first in her class at the National University of Mexico medical school and received the Premio Robins award for best medical student of her generation. She speaks four languages fluently. She runs seven miles before work every day. She works an average of 80 hours every week.

Yet for the sake of science, she perpetually brings up her own weaknesses. Like chocolate. Which we keep coming back to.

“The other day someone gave me chocolate-covered raisins,” she says, swinging her ID chain with both hands, a twinkle in her eye. “They gave me two boxes, so I say, OK, I’ll eat half a box. Well, I ate one-and-a-half boxes!” This sort of compulsive eating, she says, is one reason that obesity has become an epidemic. Many people blame obese people for their condition, saying they simply eat too much. But it’s not that obese people lack willpower, says Volkow; there is something physical happening in their brains that prevents them from stopping. “Obesity is highly, horrifically stigmatized,” says Volkow. “It erodes your self-esteem, it interferes with social interactions, it affects your mobility. And yet so often people cannot stop it.”

Next: The Dopamine Made Me Do It »

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