We are getting heavier by the year, and the social, economic and well-being costs of our obesity grow at a rate proportional to our expanding waistlines. As researchers strive to understand why it is we have such a hard time maintaining a healthy weight some have focused in on the many similarities between the behaviors of drug addiction and the behaviors of some types of compulsive eating – and as these scientists investigate, they’re finding that at the neural level, drug addiction looks quite a lot like food addiction.
As a nation, we’ve never been as obese as we are today, and the same holds true for citizens from many countries of the world.
By 2009-2010 roughly a third of Americans (35.7%) were obese and no state in the nation had an obesity prevalence rate below 20%.1
What is going on?
Maybe it’s increasing portion sizes, a decrease in physical activity levels, increasing numbers of people working in front of computers and an explosion in the availability and variety of processed foods which offer a dramatic sugar/fat hit.
But maybe it’s also something more. Maybe the way the dietary landscape has changed over the last decades has led to the emergence of something totally new which also helps to explain these growing obesity rates…maybe a part of the answer lies in the idea of food addiction.
Could it be that some of us are actually growing addicted to some of the foods we eat?
20 years ago people laughed at the idea of food addiction. Today, most brain researchers would say that at the neural level, addictions to food and drugs look a lot alike.
And while not yet universally recognized, a growing body of very recent research evidence supports the concept of food addiction.
- At the behavioral level, people who have suspected food addictions act very similarly to people who have drug addictions. This is expressed through things like a loss of control over eating and continuing to do something despite knowing of negative consequences.
- In animal model studies, we can see that the overconsumption of certain types of foods leads to behaviors that look very much like addiction. In one experiment, rats that had become dependent on cocaine even grew to prefer a regular hit of super sweet liquid over their normal cocaine fix.2
- Brain scan studies also seem to back the idea of food’s addictive properties. We can see through neural imaging that the brains of people who score highly on measures of food addiction have brain changes that look very similar to the changes that occur after drug addiction.3
The research support grows and opponents of the concept of food addiction grow fewer in number. In fact, based on a mounting body of evidence supporting the idea of food addiction, Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse commented this year that, “The data is so overwhelming the field has to accept it. We are finding tremendous overlap between drugs in the brain and food in the brain.”4
Why Are People Just Starting to Talk about Food Addiction?
The world’s growing obesity epidemic serves to highlight the fact that something has changed in the way that many of us eat on a daily basis – but why is this so? Why now?
One very logical explanation for the sudden explosion in obesity and compulsive eating disorders is the quite recent proliferation of very cheap and very available processed high fat, high calorie and high sugar foods.
While all humans have an evolutionary survival-based drive to seek high calorie foods (to make it through times of famine), throughout most periods of human history it has been prohibitively expensive or difficult to get enough of these foods to start causing yourself any real problems.
Current food prices, however, make it very easy to afford large quantities of high calorie foods. This coupled with the easy access and availability of such foods (fast food drive-throughs, vending machines, fast food delivery, microwave instant meals etc.) causes us to have to frequently override our primal drive to feast on these high density foods – and as current obesity rates indicate, this is not something we are very good at doing.5
Food addiction likely occurs in susceptible individuals after the repeated overconsumption of highly palatable foods which causes the repeated overstimulation of reward pathways in the brain. MRI imaging studies show that food-based overstimulation of the brain’s reward pathways leads to structural and functional changes in the brain that are very similar to the structural and functional changes seen in drug addiction.
If I am Obese, Am I Addicted to Food?
Not necessarily; many obese people are not addicted to food.
If you consume more calories than you burn you will gain weight and ultimately become obese. Obesity is a physical state that will occur regardless of your reasons for eating too much.
Two possible reasons for eating more than you should are an addiction to food or an eating disorder, like binge eating disorder.
- Some obese people have no related mental health issue
- Some obese people have an eating disorder, like binge eating disorder
- Some obese people are addicted to food
- Some obese people are addicted to food and have an eating disorder*6
How Do I Know if I Have an Addiction to Food?
Behaviors/characteristics which may indicate food addiction include: sometimes losing control over how much you eat, feeling strong food cravings when you try to suppress your eating urges, experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you can’t consume certain foods and continuing to overeat despite knowing that it does you harm.
Ask yourself the following few questions:
- Do you continue to eat certain foods even after you are no longer hungry?
- Do you sometimes eat to the point where you start to feel physically sick?
- Does your eating and thoughts about food cause you a lot of worry and distress?
- Are there certain types of foods that you eat continuously throughout the day?
- Do your eating habits limit your ability to live a satisfying life?7
If you answered yes to any of the above you may want to take a more thorough food addiction self test.
Why Is It Important to Understand Food Addiction?
We need to understand things that can cause poor health and which can lower quality of life – at the level of the individual, this is a given.
But at the societal level, it’s also of great importance that we gain a better understanding of how food can trigger compulsive behaviors and to develop policies and industry regulations which safeguard people’s health.
- If high sugar foods or drinks are addictive, is it OK to advertise such products to children?
- If the overconsumption of calorie dense fried foods can lead to structural changes to the brain’s reward pathways is it OK to serve such foods in school lunch programs?8
Page last updated Apr 22, 2012