Food Addiction: The Truth About Our Relationship With Food
As a registered dietitian I come across many patients that have unhealthy relationships with food. In fact, more people than you might think use food for more than just bodily nourishment. Many times food can be our friend or family, it can comfort us, it can distract us from life for a bit and it can even be used to fuel an addiction. Yes, food can be a very addicting substance. Especially those that are highly refined, high in sugar and high in fat. Substances like these have shown to be as addictive as illegal drugs.
See that photo at the top? Those are two separate PET scans of someone’s brain after eating a high sugar item and after ingesting cocaine. They’re almost identical, aren’t they? The area highlighted is involved in our sense of reward – that happy, excited feeling we get from anything from eating a good meal, or seeing an old friend – anything that gives you pleasure. Unfortunately, drugs, alcohol, nicotine and now foods high in sugar and fat give us that same pleasure. That same feeling of reward, training our brains to continually seek out those substances.
This particular PET scan compares the images of a normal, cocaine addicted and obese person. The red areas reflect the amount of dopamine present in the brain. See how little there is in the cocaine and obese brain? People who have a food addiction get more reward from the anticipation of the food, than they do from actually consuming the food. This can lead a person to continually seek out more food to get the same feeling of reward, happiness and excitement. This behavior repeated over and over again… is an addiction.
In addition, obese people along with those addicted to other substances have fewer dopamine receptors in their brains. This happens over time as the brain adapts to the continuous intake of the addictive substance (sugar or fat) and thus downregulates the amount of receptors. So even when the addictive foods are consumed, they bring a smaller amount of reward or pleasure almost forcing the individual to eat more and more.
This means that over eating can lead to obesity which causes a greater desire for palatable food. The continuous consumption and decreased amount of dopamine receptors creates a decreased sense of reward causing people to seek out additional food as they try to get a maximum sense of reward. On top of that, once one bite is eaten, the reward system is activated causing the brain to want, more more more of that food. Willpower and logical reasoning stand a small chance against this addictive system in our brains.
Addictions are incredibly difficult to break – especially food addictions. You need food to survive, so unlike an alcoholic, you can’t give up food. However, abstaining for refined foods, those high in sugar and fat is definitely a start. But that might not be enough. Professional help, maybe even from a structure program, is the most effective way to treat and cope with a food addiction. Contact your doctor to get started on your road to recovery if you feel you may suffer from a food addiction or have an unhealthy relationship with it.