Everyone has food cravings every now and again. But for people who struggle to control their daily calorie intake, food can be downright addictive.

A new study presented at the annual conference of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology discovered that brain activity in obese people is different than that of their normal-weight counterparts, which may explain the susceptibility to food. In fact, in obese individuals, brain activity in response to food is similar to that of substance abusers.

For their study, researchers provided a buffet-style meal to 81 people in total, 39 of whom were obese and the others were within the normal weight range. Later, each participant underwent an MRI while viewing photos of the food from the buffet to stimulate a food craving. Researchers then used the scans to map a neurological response.

In obese individuals, the MRI showed a greater connectivity between the dorsal caudate and the somatosensory cortex, parts of the brain associated with reward-based habits and the coding of the energetic value of foods. Normal-weight participants did not show the same neural response.

These findings suggest that people who struggle with their weight may have a tendency toward food cravings hard-wired into their brains. Knowing the differences in brain activity between obese and normal-weight individuals could help researchers come up with new therapies, such as pharmaceuticals or brain stimulation techniques, according to the study’s authors.

Certain types of foods are more addictive than others. Foods high in sugar and/or fat have typically been implicated in food addiction research. Earlier this year, a PLOS One study by University of Michigan researchers confirmed that chocolate, pizza and other highly processed foods were much more addictive than foods like vegetables or brown rice, an unsurprising finding. Whether highly palatable foods can trigger changes in the brain, however, remains to be seen.

Read the full article "For Obese, Food Craving Is 'Hard-Wired'" at Discovery News.