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Can You Be Addicted to Food?

The cookies lure you to the cupboard with a siren song.  Chocolate seems as vital as oxygen.  Can you be addicted to food?  The answer points to a force greater than willpower alone. Guest author Dr. Ellen Hendriksen explains

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
August 12, 2013

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At one time or another, most of us have found ourselves staring at the scraped-clean bottom of a pint of Haagen-Dazs, or a magically emptied grease-spotted french fry sleeve, and wondered, “What just happened?”  But for some folks, eating feels like an irresistible compulsion - something they can't control. Can you really be addicted to food?

The evidence is leaning in favor of yes (sort of).  It’s not the same strength of addiction as hard drugs like crystal meth or cocaine, of course, and many other factors come into play with food, like positive associations, habit, and social pressure.  It’s also important to note that true addiction is a very complex disease, with roots in genetics, family environment, and individual behavior.  But anyone who can’t stop the motion of fork to mouth knows that there’s more to food addiction than simply a weak will.

I’ve certainly never met anyone coming down from a broccoli high, but there are certain foods that have addictive potential, namely sugar, fat, and salt.  Chocolate is common culprit due to the one-two punch of fat and sugar.

How Does Food Addiction Work?

How does the food version of addiction work? Let’s use its more intense cousin, drug addiction, to demonstrate. 

Along with several other natural substances, at the core of it all is a natural, made-in-the-body neurotransmitter called dopamine, or the “pleasure chemical.”  Alcohol, gambling, and natural rewards like sex and—surprise!—food, affect the release of dopamine.  Drugs of abuse do this the most effectively.  Dope equals dopamine.

We’ll borrow the brain of a formerly heroin-addicted patient as an example; we’ll call him Brian.  Whenever Brian used heroin, dopamine surged from specific cells and was dumped into the synapses of his brain, causing a high.  This was such a dramatic, jolting change that his brain scrambled to adapt and adjust.  One way his brain compensated was to reduce the number of dopamine receptors.  Then, because there were fewer receptors, Brian needed more of the drug next time to get the same effect. 

Dopamine is released only by a small number of brain cells, but each of these cells connects, like an electrical grid, to thousands of other brain cells, so dopamine’s influence is far-reaching.  Over time, the connected regions of Brian’s brain began to change in response to his drug-taking, such as those in charge of learning, decision-making, and memory. 

Eventually, Brian experienced powerful cravings for the drug.  He used a lot of it—called bingeing—when he could get it.  He needed more of it over time to get the same effect, called tolerance, and he went into withdrawal, or experienced physical symptoms, when he couldn’t get it.  Finally, because of the changes in the brain, he experienced cross-sensitization, or a heightened reaction to similar drugs, as well.  The result: Brian was an addict. 

But what about food?  The late Princeton University psychology professor Bart Hoebel, Ph.D., devoted much of his career to determining that sugar is addictive, at least in rats.  Other studies have demonstrated similar results with fat and salt, but let’s look more closely at sugar as an example...

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