Anorexia Study Supports the Dopamine Addiction Hypothesis

by Gary Strang on July 3, 2011

“It’s possible that when people with anorexia nervosa eat, the related release of the neurotransmitter dopamine makes them anxious, rather than experiencing a normal feeling of reward.”
– Walter Kaye, MD, professor of psychiatry, director of the Eating Disorder Treatment and Research Program at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine[1].

One of the Dopamine Project’s objectives is to highlight scientific studies that directly or indirectly support the dopamine addiction hypothesis. These studies are generally under-reported in the media. Here’s one such study, which clearly demonstrates the power that dopamine has not just on how we feel, but ultimately, on how we behave.

The study, led by Dr. Walter Kaye, used PET scans (positron emission tomography) to view dopamine activity[2].

Dr. Kaye and his team found that dopamine (which they stimulated by giving study participants a dose of amphetamine) was connected to feelings of pleasure in healthy non-anorexic women. That part isn’t surprising; it is well established that dopamine is released when we eat, see, or even think about tasty foods. What is surprising is that in the subjects who had suffered from anorexia nervosa, dopamine caused anxiety. For this group, eating was unpleasant, presumably because of some kind of dopaminergic dysfunction.

But what is even more remarkable about this study is that it reveals that taste isn’t an essential quality of food, or even a product of your taste buds. Taste is determined by how dopamine affects an individual’s brain. And, as Dr. Kaye’s study points out, dopamine affects people in unique and different ways. Put another way, if you prefer chocolate over vanilla ice cream, grape jelly over orange marmalade, or steak over chicken, you do so because dopamine was involved in determining your preference.

Ultimately, we are puppets and dopamine is our puppet-master. Every time we choose to eat something, we are ultimately choosing whatever we believe will give us the biggest hit of dopamine — such is the nature of addiction. The challenge is to recognize what’s transpiring and start regaining self-control. That’s a tall order, since a loss of self-awareness occurs even at the earliest stages of dopamine addiction. But like any addiction, the first step is admitting the addiction is calling the shots.

If people with anorexia feel anxiety when dopamine is released, can they really feel pleasure at all?

Is an addiction to tasty food really just an addiction to dopamine?

What’s the difference between haute cuisine and nutrition?

What’s the difference between sustenance and food?

Do you place too much/too little/just enough value on how food tastes?

If you could turn off the dopamine flow when you eat, would you taste food totally differently?

If you could get all your nutrition in a pill, would you give up eating food altogether?

If you spend an average of two hours a day stuffing your face and you took that pill so you didn’t need to eat, what would you do with those two hours?



[1] “Does Eating Give You Pleasure, or Make You Anxious?”, May 21, 2011, retrieved May 29, 2011.

[2] Ursula F. Bailer, Rajesh Narendran, W. Gordon Frankle, Michael L. Himes, Vikas Duvvuri, Chester A. Mathis, Walter H. Kaye. Amphetamine induced dopamine release increases anxiety in individuals recovered from anorexia nervosa. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 2011; DOI:


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