Humans eat for many reasons, including the rewarding qualities of foods. A host of neurotransmitters have been shown to influence eating behavior and some of these appear to be involved in reward-induced eating. Endogenous opioid peptides and their receptors were first reported more than 30 years ago, and studies suggesting a role of opioids in the regulation of food intake date back nearly as far. Opioid agonists and antagonists have corresponding stimulatory and inhibitory effects on feeding. In addition to studies aimed at identifying the relevant receptor subtypes and sites of action within the brain, there has been a continuing interest in the role of opioids on diet/taste preferences, food reward, and the overlap of food reward with others types of reward. Data exist that suggest a role for opioids in the control of appetite for specific macronutrients, but there is also evidence for their role in the stimulation of intake based on already-existing diet or taste preferences and in controlling intake motivated by hedonics rather than by energy needs. Finally, various types of studies indicate an overlap between mechanisms mediating drug reward and palatable food reward. Preference or consumption of sweet substances often parallels the self-administration of several drugs of abuse, and under certain conditions, the termination of intermittent access to sweet substances produces symptoms that resemble those observed during opiate withdrawal. The overconsumption of readily available and highly palatable foods likely contributes to the growing rates of obesity worldwide. An understanding of the role of opioids in mediating food reward and promoting the overconsumption of palatable foods may provide insights into new approaches for preventing obesity.
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The writing of this paper was supported in part by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (R01DA021280), and the National Institute of Diabetes and Ingestive and Kidney Diseases (P30DK50456).
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