Every day in casual conversation we hear people say:
I’m a junk food junkie
I’m a chocoholic
I need my sugar fix
So it can be difficult for people to take “food addiction” seriously. However, for anyone who is currently struggling with “true food addiction” (aka food dependency or a food-related substance use disorder) it can be very serious. For most, the road has undoubtedly been long and difficult. Today, the vast majority of people, including those in the medical community, don’t understand why or how people can become addicted to certain foods. Happily, this is changing as more and more scientific evidence becomes available.
Most people automatically assume that those who struggle with their weight lack willpower and that they just need to eat less and exercise more. This implies that without much effort people can simply choose to stop eating quite so much. In reality, food addiction, as with all addictions, is a complex disease. Changing what and how you eat usually takes much more than good intentions or a strong will. Once addicted, eating certain foods changes the brain in ways that make abstaining from one’s “trigger foods” very hard, even for those who desperately want to. Fortunately, we continue to learn more about how food addiction affects the brain. And treatments have been identified that can help people recover from food addiction and lead productive lives that they never imagined were possible for them.
What is food addiction?
Food addiction is just like drug and alcohol addiction. Addiction means the body has become chemically dependent on one or more substances and needs these substances to function “normally”. So when we are talking about a specific food as potentially being a substance of abuse we are saying that the body has become dependent on a particular food or eating behavior. The most common addictive foods are foods high in sugar, flour, fat, grains and salt or some combination of these. The most common addictive eating behaviors are bingeing, purging and volume eating. Food Addiction is a chronic and progressive disease characterized by our seeking the foods or food behaviors we are addicted to, eating/doing them compulsively and having a great deal of difficulty controlling these urges despite harmful consequences.
When we initially consumed these same foods as children, we might have had the choice of when and how much to eat them. But repeated use can lead to brain changes that trick the mind, challenge an addicted person’s self-control and/or interfere with the ability to resist consuming these foods or engaging in unwanted, harmful behaviors. These brain changes are persistent. This is why food addiction can be complicated to treat. People can often go on a “diet” for a while and think they’re fine: “See I can quit eating _________(fill in the blank). I am fine, I’m not an addict.” However once someone is addicted, “dieting” for a period of time is rarely a successful long term solution.
What happens to the brain when consuming addictive foods?
When ingested, sugar, flour, grains (and any other addictive foods) light up the brain's "reward circuit" by flooding it with the chemical messenger dopamine. This reward system controls the body's ability to feel pleasure and motivates a person to repeat behaviors needed to thrive, such as spending time with loved ones, physical intimacy or achieving a goal. Overstimulation of the dopamine reward circuit can cause an intensely pleasurable "high" that can lead people to eat these foods again and again.
When a person continues to compulsively eat these foods, the brain adjusts to the excess dopamine by making less of it and/or reducing the ability of cells in the reward circuit to respond to it. This reduces the high that the person feels compared to the high felt when first eating these foods—an effect known as “tolerance.” One then eats more of the food, trying to achieve the same dopamine high. It can also cause less pleasure to be accessed from other things once enjoyed, like social activities.
Long-term compulsive eating also causes changes in other brain chemical systems and circuits as well, affecting functions that include:
Despite awareness of these harmful outcomes, many people who compulsively eat continue to do so. This is the nature of addiction.
Why do some people become addicted to certain foods while others don't?
No one factor can predict if a person will become addicted to certain foods or eating behaviors. A combination of factors influences risk for addiction. The more risk factors a person has, the greater the chance consuming these foods can lead to addiction. For example:
The genes people are born with account for about half of a person's risk for addiction. Under certain circumstances, gender, ethnicity, and the presence of other mental disorders may also influence risk for food and other addictions.
A person’s environment includes many different influences, from family and friends to economic status and general quality of life. Factors such as peer pressure, physical and sexual abuse, early exposure to these foods (think sugar), stress, and poor parental guidance can greatly affect a person’s likelihood of having food and other addictions.
Genetic and environmental factors interact with critical developmental stages in a person’s life to affect addiction risk. Although eating addictive foods to excess at any age can lead to addiction, the earlier that food is introduced (again, think about kids and their consumption of sugar), the more likely it can progress to addiction.
Can food addiction be cured or prevented?
As with other addictions like alcoholism and drug addiction, treatment for food addiction isn’t a cure. However, food addiction is treatable and can be successfully managed or at least mitigated. However, people who are recovering from an addiction will be at risk for relapse for years and possibly for the rest of their lives. Research shows that combining abstinence from a person’s “addictive foods” with support from a twelve step program and or a professional who uses the abstinence approach to treatment, ensures the best chance of success for most people. Treatment approaches tailored to each person’s food use patterns and any co-occurring medical, mental, and social problems can often lead to continuous recovery.