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Opiate Receptor Gene Promotes Sweet Tooth

Ingestive behaviour is largely governed by two biological systems: the homeostatic system involving hunger and satiety and the hedonic system involving appetite and reward.

The latter system is also involved in other hedonic behaviours ranging from alcohol and recreational drug use to other “pleasurable” activities like sex, shopping, or gambling, all of which can manifest themselves as addictions.

It may therefore not be surprising, that Caroline Davis and colleagues from York University, Toronto, in a paper just published in the International Journal of Obesity, report that a common genetic variant of the mu1 opiate receptor is associated with increased preference for sweets and fatty foods.

The researchers studied the relationship between variants of the OPRM1 gene and measures of food preferences and eating behaviours in 300 healthy adult men and women recruited from the community.

Individuals with the G/G genotype of the functional A118G marker of the OPRM1 gene reported higher preferences for sweet and fatty foods compared with the other two groups. These food preferences were clearly related to all measures of overeating, which in turn accounted for a substantial proportion of the variance in BMI.

Thus, the authors conclude that some of the diversity in the preference for highly palatable foods can be explained by genotypic differences in the regulation of mu opioid receptors that play a key role in the appetite and reward system (in addition, these receptors may also have a role in regulating the homeostatic system).

Obviously, individuals carrying this genetic variant may have a much harder time saying “no” to sweets and fatty foods, than individuals without this variant. Even if the number of people with this genetic variant may have not changed in recent years, the current abundance of cheap sweet and fatty foods clearly poses a far greater challenge to carriers of this gene.

I wonder how many of my readers would suspect that they may have this genetic variant of the opiate receptor gene and, if they do, I’d love to hear how they cope with passing up the sweets.

Edmonton, Alberta

Davis C, Zai C, Levitan RD, Kaplan AS, Carter JC, Reid-Westoby C, Curtis C, Wight K, & Kennedy JL (2011). Opiates, overeating and obesity: a psychogenetic analysis. International journal of obesity (2005) PMID: 21266954


  1. Not only has the cost of sweets relative to healthier foods changed (sure, there have always been some inexpensive sweets, but only if people had enough money to buy them) — but there’s also been a cultural shift. I grew up in the ’70s in California, and I was bombarded with TV ads for sugary cereals, cookies, candy, soda, etc. The direct marketing to children has lasting impacts (exactly what the advertisers intend). Not only are the food marketers selling a particular product, they are selling the acceptability of the whole “class” of food — it’s slender, attractive, “cool” kids eating their food products in the ads.
    I think we need to regulate advertising to children more intensely. I’m not sure what it’s like in Canada, but even if they are selling sweetened yogurt and “fruit snacks” — marketing food directly to kids leads to problems — especially for those (I know I’m in this category) with a hard-to-manage “sweet tooth.”
    I think that this knowledge can also be helpful. If I know that I’m going to have a tougher time around sweets than many other people, I can use some techniques to manage that — such as making sure I’m not eating them when I’m very hungry so I don’t have that other driver operating as well. Or having a nice dessert at a restaurant rather than having cookies in the pantry so I’m not constantly having to fight the impulse to eat them. For me, it’s not necessary to forgo them completely.
    I found this type of chocolate that comes in small circles — picture a large M&M without the shell — and I find that I can eat these in a moderate amount and still feel like I’ve had a “treat.”
    Another thing for me to keep in mind is that I know that I could have been on a different path — found another “opiate” for that “receptor” — and that having a “sweet tooth” — while it may contribute to my weight — is far less dangerous for me, my family, and others than alcoholism, drug addiction, sex addiction, or a gambling or shopping addiction. While there are health consequences of eating sweets to excess — they are not as immediate, dire, or damaging to those around me as many other pathways. (Someone with a shopping addiction might feel gratitude they don’t have my sweet tooth — I’m not intending to judge anyone else.) I have gratitude that my struggle has been manageable, and not as damaging for those around me, as my father’s alcoholism was for me.

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  2. Carolyn Davis’ work is always really interesting…! She has put together another really important part of the overeating puzzle here.

    I guess the overarching theme is that some foods- particularly those eaten for hedonically motivated eating- pose a danger to those people who are prone to overeating (likely a whole lot of us, given the current stats and rise in obesity).

    I was chatting a bit about Sensory Specific Satiety in my blog (a topic with which I am familiar, but by no means an expert). SSS can provide some clues with regard to the types of foods people should avoid (hint: anything with flavour powder is out).

    Cheers for the post…!

    All the best,

    Margaret Yufera-Leitch

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  3. The method I use is complete abstain from sugar. Education myself on what sugar does, ak Lustig video, Sugar: the bitter truth, is a abridged version of some of it. To do this, we must also give up grains, as some of these create the same buss, as can to much omega 6 fats, but the OA program has know this for over 50 years.

    For today, I will give up sugars, grains, lubricants, and manufactured eatable products and see how I feel about it in the morning helped a lot.

    I have come to not regard sugar, grains, lubricants, and manufactured eatable products as food.

    I have now adopted the Paleo/Primal/LoBAG lifestyle. It is sustainable for an individual but not for the masses.

    Down 58 kg as of this AM, but what do I know.

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  4. I believe this to be true as it could be reason for my weight, from playing football and every sport going as a child growing up. Food was used as a reward hit a home run and you get a bag of jube jubes this was from a man who owned a candy factory I hit usually two or three homerun a game got lots of jube jubes but every person wonder how I put on nweight when I was so active. My mother would give me a good dinner but we always had dessert if I didn’t eat all my vegetables I wouldn’t get dessert which could have been anything from Apple pie with cheese or ice cream all have lots of fat and sugar as the main ingredients.
    I’ve been on medication for chronic pain so those urges came back but i can now go weeks without falling victim to the urges but the last two weeks I haven’t lost any weight as I have been in more pain because of Cold, cold Canadian winters. I cheated with sour jube jubes, then I saw no sugar jube jubes and thought they would be okay as they said no sugar but they are made with corn starch. this week i have stayed away from sweets, I try to change up my routine by doing something different make a cup of tea( which I hardly ever due but it redirects my mind off the sweets or I go back over the reasons I am trying to get healthy and lose the weight while I wait for gastric Bypass surgery it is so I will be around to walk my daughter down the aisle at her wedding and see some grand children.

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  5. I am pretty sure I have this gene …. I had a “sweet tooth” all my life and even after having VSG surgery I still have the sometimes “cravings” for those sweets. Not as often as before surgery but they are definitely still there and harder to fight the further out I am.
    Working in a store carrying Swiss Chocolate all day every day is very hard but I managed to work with it. I am usually on “sugar phases” where I could eat all day every day sweets for a few days …. then I challenge myself to go off for a few days/weeks to clean my system out. I just had 23 days without sweets and then the first piece yesterday and allready some today. Tomorrow starts a new challenge and it is supposed to go ’til Valentine’s Day.
    I try to avoid carbs in the afternoon and evening, this really helped keeping the “sweet tooth” in check. I do eat healthy carbs in the morning and for lunch.
    I also drink lots of water and/or unsweetened tea. The trick with fruit that work for some doesn’t do the trick at all for me …. I am actually better off not eating at all if a sweet craving hits me all of a sudden …. or I go for a work-out if possible to distract.

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  6. How can I find out if I have this gene variant?

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  7. People need to keep in mind that they still have a responsibility for their physical health, weight included. Having a genetic predisposition to enjoying, craving, or being ‘addicted’ to unhealthy foods is not even comparable to a hormone disorder causing obesity. It does not alleviate responsibility. This gene variant could after all be well within the normal variation we expect to see with any factor affected by genes.

    However we do need to reduce the unlimited freedom of the private sector. If a company produces 30% of our food supply we should enforce their responsibility to produce healthy foods, just as we require them to label the various contents. We can’t let companies run amok just because they’ve won the competitive race. Our food matters more then some twisted view of freedoms. As it is after all a violation of our freedoms as participants in specialized society to make healthy food more an nonviable option.

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  8. When I sought treatment for compulsive overeating in 1988, I read an article stating that children of alcoholics can have an “increased pleasurable response” to sugary foods. I have abstained from sugars (and much white flour) since that time. (I do eat natural fruits, in combination w/protein and whole grains.) I have continued to maintain a 100# weight loss without surgeries or stimulants for 20+ years … my father died of his alcoholism 2 years ago (as have other relatives).

    At the time I went “sugar-free”, it was a very controversial, polarized issue in the treatment field. I am grateful that more is being done to validate and increase awareness of the potential genetic vulnerability. It may make a difference for some.

    During the first few years of abstinence, I pictured sugar foods with a skull & crossbones on them — for me. They were not an option if I was to have a full life and clear thinking. The urges and cravings subsided over time and for many years they have been a non-issue… those types of food are not an option — for me. Living by that belief has been a key component for my health and productivity.

    Well wishes to all.

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  9. I’m pretty sure I have this gene. With the help of your Weight Wise Clinic, Dr. Sharma, I have, as of this morning, lost 110 lbs. and counting. I still have a long way to go, but I am headed in the right direction. In addition to being obese, I am also a Type 2 diabetic, so for a number of years now I have gone “sugar-free.”

    The best strategy I have for avoiding sweets is to not even keep them in the house. My house is a “sweets-free” zone. We have been so conditioned in our society to reward ourselves for many of our accomplishments with food, that I specifically look for “non-food” rewards when I have reached a goal or achieved a significant milestone. Things I do for my self include getting a massage, attending an NHL hockey game and other “non-food” related rewards that I also enjoy and that give me pleasure.

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  10. The question this raises in my mind is what role does this genetic variant play in obesity when it occurs in someone who also has ADHD?

    My ADHD was not diagnosed until age 52. It was diagnosed as a direct result of my psychological screening for gastric bypass surgery. Being of the “Predominantly Inattentive” type, no one had ever suggested this possibility to me before. Even once the possibility was suggest after my screening, I dismissed the possibility out of hand.

    Turns out, I had a LOT of misconceptions about ADHD. But the more I learned and the more I separated the science from the hysteria, the more the coincidences across my entire life began piling up. I eventually returned for a more complete evaluation and began treatment.

    I’m now at a normal BMI for the first time in my life – I’ve had a normal A1c for over a year now (5.5 as of 3eeks ago). I am off insulin and all oral diabetic meds. I attribute my sucess to a combination of the surgery and the treatment for ADHD. I think either one in isolation would not have been nearly as effective.

    For so many years, I bought into the whole ELMM approach you have discussed previously. And try as I might, I could not understand why this approach always ended in failure for me. Now, I am beginning to understand why “just try harder” was hurting me far more than it was helping me.

    I was surprised to discover the very high incidence of ADHD in people with obesity – and while those numbers range broadly (somewhere between 23%-46% depending upon the study and BMI of the individual), it is absolutely clear that ADHD occurs much more frequently in people who are obese than in the general population.

    So, does this gene variation play role along with ADHD and obesity?. If you could locate 5,000 indivuals with both this genetic variation and ADHD, what would their average BMI be?

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  11. I agree with everyone. I basically have to almost eliminate sweets entirely from my diet. My home is also a “sweet-free” zone. I find when Christmas comes along and I eat more sweets I crave them strongly for weeks afterward. However, my cravings are finally manageable again when they are eliminated. Sugar affects my mood dramatically. I also have begun to eat a lot more organic foods and try to be gluten free. What helps the most though, is that I drink protein shakes with approx. 30g of protein every morning for breakfast. I find this helps me to reach my daily protein limit and keeps me satiated for the rest of the day. I am not constantly looking for food. As of this morning, down 41.5 lbs.

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  12. I think I definitely must be a carrier of the variant, mostly because when I need the sugar, I really need the sugar.
    To begin with, I always have a post-dinner craving for dessert, although I don’t really know how that pattern came to be. Dessert was never a given after dinner when I was young.
    And apart from that, I’ve only just realized that I run to the sweeties when I’m trying to multitask and am exhausted from the effort. Working in an area that demands a high output, chocolate bars seem to be the best bet when I’m flagging and unable to concentrate. Its a shame really that I don’t want to eat something more ‘sensible’ in those situations. Would sure help with the guilt trips later.
    My bmi is, and has been normal for all my life though, and I try to exercise and maintain my weight so I guess not all is lost. Need to watch out as I grow older though. Not sure how wise it is to subject the old gears to bad habits.

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  13. I believe I have a variant of this feature. I cope with it by eating sweets and fats mindfully and avoiding those that are “layered” on a regular basis but I allow them anytime I “really” want them- just make sure to eat them mindfully- sometimes I have to eat them “super-mindfully” if I feel that I’m not going to be able to stop.

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  1. News » Blog Archive » Editor’s Selections: Sweet Tooth, Typing vs. Writing, Strangers, Getting Home, and Neuro-nonsense - [...] start us out, Dr. Sharma of his eponymous blog discusses a new finding in neuroscience: is there a gene…

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