New research published in Addiction Biology could explain the mechanism behind binge eating, which is closely linked to obesity.

Obesity is a growing global epidemic, and many developed countries, such as the United States, offer “obesogenic environments” that are conducive to unhealthy habits like binge eating. These environments are defined as “the sum of influences that the surroundings, opportunities, or conditions of life have on promoting ­obesity in individuals or populations.”

We know that overeating can cause weight gain, but there is still a lot we don’t know about the behaviors that lead to overeating in the first place.

Two teams of researchers from the Centre for Genomic Regulation and Pompeu Fabra University (UPF), both located in Barcelona, Spain, sought to recreate an obesogenic environment by offering mice high-fat feed and chopped up pieces of chocolate alongside their usual lab feed.

Researchers began to notice interesting trends in the mice’s eating patterns. They started to put on excessive weight and gradually began to display addictive behaviors and binge-eating habits. They also noticed patterns concerning the time mice were eating. Mice usually prefer to eat at night, but they began to eat in more frequent, snacking patterns throughout the day instead of eating less frequent, but more filling meals.

They gave the mice access to the pieces of chocolate for just 1 hour a day, which the mice ended up binging, consuming as much chocolate in 1 hour as they would have consumed over the course of an entire day. The mice also exhibited inflexible behaviors, similar to addictive behavior, by choosing to wait for chocolate instead of eating the available food, even though chocolate didn’t satisfy hunger.

“Our results revealed that long-term exposure to hypercaloric diets impair the ability to control eating behaviour leading to negative effects on the cognitive processes responsible for a rational control of food intake,” said Rafael Maldonado, who heads the Neuropharmacology Laboratory at UPF.

Treating obesity is extremely difficult, given the high rate of relapse. Such access to hypercaloric diets, like those in an obesogenic environment, inhibit a person’s ability to control their eating habits. One unhealthy choice can lead to another, which can quickly lead to a vicious cycle of binge eating and bad habits.

Mara Dierssen, group leader of the Cellular and Systems Neurobiology laboratory at CRG, urges that we examine obesity as a behavioral disease–not a metabolic disease. Advising an overweight or obese person to eat less and exercise is too simplistic.

Losing weight is extremely difficult, and it’s easy for people to get sucked into a cycle of yo-yo dieting, Dierssen said. Examining obesity and binge eating from a bird’s eye view can help us understand which behaviors lead to obesity, shifting the way we think about obesity from treatment to prevention. Early intervention can connect at-risk people with the treatment that prevents them from becoming overweight.

Guardian Recovery Network offers professional eating disorder intervention services that can help you guide your loved one toward treatment for binge eating or other unhealthy eating behaviors. Our team of professional interventionists has helped hundreds of families around the country and boasts a 98% success rate. For more information about how we can help you or someone you love, contact a Guardian Recovery Specialist at 877-831-2533.