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Antidepressant helps people ditch chocolate biscuits for healthier food

16-Mar-17
Article By: Angeline Albert

A drug used to treat depression makes people more likely to eat healthy food rather than tasty, fatty snacks, say academics.

Credit: Gts/Shutterstock.com

The discovery by researchers, follows a series of trials involving the antidepressant drug citalopram, which were conducted to examine the impact of serotonin on people’s food choices.

Researchers from Warwick Business School, the University of Oxford, University of British Columbia and the University of Cambridge gave a pill to 27 adults and asked them to choose between two snacks shown on a screen, such as fruit and chocolate biscuits.

Sometimes the screen showed two healthy options, sometimes two unhealthy snacks and at other times one of each. The participants took a single dose of citalopram, and then a placebo, without knowing what they were taking.

The researchers found that 60 per cent of the participants’ choices were healthy when they took citalopram, while only 45 per cent were healthy when they took the placebo.

By rating the foods on health and taste beforehand, the trials revealed the people’s choices after swallowing the citalopram pill were made for health reasons because they more frequently selected food with a higher health rating.

Ivo Vlaev, Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School, said: “Our trials suggest that after taking the drug people are more likely to make decisions on what food to eat based on health, rather than taste.”

“Citalopram helps to give a boost of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter involved in the regulation of cognitive processes. Our data tentatively suggests serotonin amplifies the importance of health considerations in consumption decisions.”

He explained serotonin: “appears to give people the long-term focus needed to consider how food will impact on their health, rather than the short-term decision to go for what tastes better".

The results of the trials were published in the paper ‘Serotonin enhances the impact of health information on food choice’.

Professor Vlaev believes “Serotonin-enhancing drugs like citalopram could be given during the initial stages of interventions aimed at changing the lifestyle of overweight and obese patients."

Obesity has more than doubled worldwide since 1980 according to the World Health Organization. It calculated in 2014 that more than 1.9 billion adults globally - 39 per cent of people aged 18 and over- were overweight or obese.

“These research findings have implications for understanding and treating obesity and even eating disorders.”

Discovery could help people with mental health conditions

The academic also thinks that, beyond food, this research could have an impact on impulsive behaviours and mental health conditions.

He believes drugs like citalopram that enhance long-term goals in decision-making "could be used in other situations, like addictions and impulsive behaviours or be used to support psychological therapies for mental health conditions.”

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