People with a family history of alcoholism may be turning to high-calorie treats instead of booze to satisfy their addiction, researchers say, a change that could be fueling the obesity epidemic.

Because alcohol and bingeing on junk foods stimulate the same parts of the brain, it may be that people with a predisposition to alcoholism are replacing alcohol with junk foods, says the team from Washington University in St. Louis.

This is especially true for women, they report.

"Much of what we eat nowadays contains more calories than the food we ate in the 1970s and 1980s but it also contains the sorts of calories -- particularly a combination of sugar, salt and fat -- that appeal to what are commonly called the reward centers in the brain," Dr. Richard Grucza, who worked on the study published this month in the Archives of General Psychiatry, said in a statement.

"Alcohol and drugs affect those same parts of the brain and our thinking was that because the same brain structures are being stimulated, overconsumption of those foods might be greater in people with a predisposition to addiction."
Grucza's team compared addiction and obesity trends from a national survey conducted in 1991 and 1992 and in 2001 and 2002. Almost 80,000 people took part in the two surveys.

The team found that in 2001 and 2002, women with a family history of alcoholism were 49 percent more likely to be obese than those without a family history of alcoholism. The same was true of men to a lesser degree.

Grucza said the study suggests alcoholism and obesity are cross-heritable, much like alcoholism and drug addiction are

He said some of this may be related to changes in the environment, such as increased consumption of junk foods.

The study is part of a body of growing evidence for a link between alcohol abuse and obesity, particularly for women.

The alcoholism-overeating link might help explain rising obesity in the United States, which has doubled from 15 percent of the population in the late 1970s to 33 percent in 2004.

Drug firms are eyeing the alcohol-obesity link in hope of reaching the potentially huge U.S. market for obesity drugs.

Earlier this month, Orexigen Therapeutics and Takeda Pharmaceutical won backing from a U.S. advisory panel for the diet drug Contrave, which combines naltrexone, used to fight alcohol and drug addiction, and the antidepressant bupropion. The drug aims to target cravings, curb appetite and boost metabolism.

If approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the drug would be the first new weight-loss pill in a decade.