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Hormone Ghrelin Raises Desire for High-Calorie Foods

Development of Drugs to Block Ghrelin May Some Day Help in Fight Against Obesity

Ghrelin and the Appeal of High-Calorie Foods: Results continued...

"For the low-calorie foods, there was no difference in appeal between the three visits,'' Goldstone says, regardless of whether the participants were fed or not or had saline or ghrelin injected.

Goldstone also looked at how the appeal of the foods affected a part of the brain called the anterior orbital frontal cortex, ''known to be involved in encoding the reward value of food," Goldstone says.

The activation of this area declined when participants were fed but went back up when they were fed but given ghrelin.

''Thus, it appears that both acute fasting and ghrelin bias the reward systems to [choose] high-calorie foods," he says. "Changes in the hedonics of food -- how pleasurable we find food -- after missing meals or eating may be explained by levels of ghrelin circulating in the blood."

The research may provide more clues, Goldstone says, as to why so much of the population is obese or struggling with binge eating or other food issues. About one-third of U.S. adults are obese, according to the CDC, although the increase in obesity may be slowing.

In the future, Goldstone says, the development of drugs to block ghrelin may help in the obesity struggle.

Second Opinion

''It's fascinating how hormones can make you interested in chocolate," says Daniel Bessesen, MD, an endocrinologist and professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Denver, who moderated the news conference.

Science is evolving on how the brain controls food intake, he says. "It's not all about hunger, There is also this attractiveness of food. I think the attractiveness of food is part of why we overeat these days.''

Of the new research by Goldstone, Bessesen says: "His point is there is a biological basis for that [attractiveness]. His research shows, if you haven't eaten, it turns up the attractiveness of food."

Even so, ''the message doesn’t have to be hopeless," Bessesen tells WebMD. The information can help alert you to why you're sometimes attracted to certain foods -- and try to override that appeal.

How to Outsmart Your Ghrelin

Goldstone agrees that even with high levels of ghrelin, you don't have to be at the mercy of your hormones. ''There are a couple of studies suggesting the orbital frontal cortex activity can be modified," he says.

Among those who do it best, he says, are people who are most concerned about maintaining a healthy weight -- who exercise what researchers call dietary restraint.

In another study, Goldstone says, he found that those with high dietary restraint scores had less activity in the orbital frontal cortex. The executive decision-making part of their brains seems to override the reward system activation, he says.

Eventually, ghrelin-blocking drugs may make it easier to pick the salad over the chocolate ice cream, but until then? "The advice not to skip breakfast comes out again with this study," Goldstone says. Other times of the day, eating before you are famished can help, too, he says.

This study was presented at a medical conference. The findings should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.

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