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Aug 12, 2011

Fatty Foods Trigger Release of Natural Marijuana-like Chemicals

Has it ever crossed your mind why it can be so difficult to resist eating an entire bag of chips once you’ve tasted a few?  Newer research published in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that a natural biological mechanism is at least partly responsible for the temptation to overeat fatty foods like chips and French fries.  Marijuana-like chemicals known as endocannabinoids are produced in the body when these types of fats are consumed.  The team of researchers at UC Irvine found that endocannabinoids are produced in the digestive tracts of rats when they eat something fatty, but the same effect was not observed with consumption of sugars or proteins.  

According to Louise Turner Arnold Chair in the Neurosciences and professor of pharmacology, “This is the first demonstration that endocannabinoid signaling in the gut plays an important role in regulating fat intake.”  With the production of endocannabinoids, there is an apparent cascade of events tied with the release of other chemicals associated with hunger and satiety that encourage further food intake.  

From an evolutionary perspective, this biological mechanism is quite brilliant.  With fats being fairly scarce in nature but essential for healthy cell functioning, this mechanism stimulates animals to “stock up” on fats while they are available.  With fats being abundantly available in modern human society, this same biological mechanism is likely contributing to some of our major health problems today.  Although we should be careful not to demonize fats as a whole -- healthy fats are absolutely necessary for optimal health -- the overconsumption of fats in general, particularly unhealthy fats like trans-fats and hydrogenated oils, is certainly playing a major role in the development of obesity, diabetes, cancer, and other health conditions today.

Dr. Shana McQueen