Understanding Food Addiction

For most of us, the term "food addiction" is something we’ve never heard of before. Using those two words together just doesn’t seem right. And just the notion that you can get addicted to food seems downright absurd.

Recently however, medical scans have revealed that there are similarities in the brain chemistry of of drug addicts and chronic overeaters.

Food addiction

The surprising similarities got the The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) involved and now they are looking further into this subject, studying the changes in brain that is linked to obesity. NIDA is also studying the "many compounds that inhibit compulsive eating [that] may also inhibit compulsive drug intake. The neurocircuitry overlaps." says Nora D. Volkow, MD, director of NIDA.

Behavior of compulsive eaters

Put simply, the compulsive eaters tend to behave like drug addicts in the following ways:

  • cravings

  • preoccupation with food

  • the guilt

  • using food to make them feel better

  • eating binges are often done in secret or at night.

The similarities in behavior led addiction and obesity experts to use the term "addiction" in relation to food. These behavioral similarities also led experts to consider it as one of the culprits behind America’s rising obesity rate.

Food may be to obesity what cocaine or heroin is to substance abuse disorder or drug addiction. Mark Gold, MD, chief of addiction medicine at the University of Florida College of Medicine says"If you ask some of the questions that are used to diagnose drug abuse–for instance, ‘Do you continue to use the substance despite its negative effects?’ or ‘Do you have a preference for more refined substances?’–and then replace substance with food, it’s not all that difficult to imagine that food addictions exist."

They do not suggest however, that food addiction could be as strong as the pull of drugs to addicts. Research into this subject may end the ‘overeating is stems from lack of self-discipline’ theory, and the resulting evidence indicate concrete steps that extreme foodies can take to improve their eating habits.

The Brain

Research at the US Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York refused to believe a lack of willpower is the reason behind food addicts ‘dependence’ on food, and suggest that they may be missing something important – "adequate brain receptors for dopamine, a chemical that is part of the brain’s motivation and reward system."

In 2001, Gene-Jack Wang, MD, clinical head of positron emission tomography imaging at Brookhaven, and his colleagues compared brain scans of obese and normal-weight subjects. They counted the volunteers’ dopamine receptors and found that obese people had fewer dopamine receptors.

Even more astounding is that the more obese a person is, the less dopamine receptors he/she has. Wang and his colleagues also found that obese people and drugs addicts’ brains look very similar – having fewer dopamine receptors than their normal counterparts.

Researchers are now speculating whether compulsive overeating and drug use actually diminishes the number of dopamine receptors or if some people are born with this ‘deficiency’. In case of the latter, it could explain why some people do not respond as readily to art, sex, and other pleasures, and resort to taking things that stimulate dopamine release like drugs and foods that are high in sugar, fats and salt.