28 Jan 2021
Can You Be Addicted to Food?
28 Jan 2021
Can you be addicted to food?; a question a lot of people think about. As a dietitian, I see a lot of clients who have goals to eat healthier and lose weight. When I work with clients to achieve these goals, we first have to zone in on any barriers they might be facing. A common barrier clients experience is repeated episodes of overeating – eating when hunger is not present and/or eating past the point of comfortable fullness. When digging into why this happens, I find clients frequently express the same fear: “I just can’t control myself around food! I think I might have a food addiction.”
If you’ve had trouble reaching your health and wellness goals, you might have had this thought as well. It seems to make sense. Why else is it so hard to eat healthy and lose weight? There was even a study in the news about how sugar is as addictive as cocaine. So it must be true!
But is food addiction actually real?
Brain Chemistry Basics
To answer this question, we have to start with some brain chemistry basics. To ensure survival, the human brain has a built-in reward system. Whenever we do activities that are necessary for survival, our brain releases dopamine, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter. Dopamine is the reason why eating food is pleasurable. Human beings used to have to hunt, gather, and grow all our own food. If eating wasn’t pleasurable, where would we get the motivation to do all that work?!
Beginning from when we’re a baby, we experience an increase in dopamine levels each time we eat. By making us feel good when we eat, our brain is training us to make sure we eat every day, multiple times a day. The drive to eat is what helps us get the energy and nutrients we need to grow and function properly. That means that the desire for food is nothing to be ashamed of! It’s perfectly natural and necessary for our survival.
Though the release of dopamine is a normal response to eating, there are certain factors that affect the amount of dopamine our brain releases when we eat. When we experience higher levels of dopamine, that increases the pleasure of eating. Below are some of the factors that cause increased dopamine levels:
The more hungry you are when you eat, the more dopamine your brain produces. This ties back to our drive to survive. When we reach the level of ravenous hunger, our brain goes into primal mode. Finding and eating food becomes it’s top priority. Once you do eventually eat, your brain will be flooded with dopamine. This is your brain’s way of trying to reinforce the importance of eating, by making you feel extra good.
The problem with this scenario is that, because eating feels so good at that moment, it’s very difficult to stop eating. Think back to the last time you were extremely hungry. Did you end up overeating? This is why! Extreme hunger could be the result of a busy schedule or a strict diet. In either case, ignoring your hunger leads to overeating, which can cause a person to feel like they can’t control themselves around food.
If you’re struggling to reach your goals, ask yourself: Is food addiction my issue? Or am I silencing my hunger?
In the classic psychology experiment, Pavlov conditioned his dogs to anticipate receiving a treat each time he rang a bell. Just the mere ringing of a bell caused the dogs to salivate at the expectation of getting fed. As humans, we can also be conditioned to receive rewards in certain situations. Over time, we come to anticipate those rewards whenever we’re in particular scenarios or environments. And the higher the anticipation, the more dopamine our brains release when we receive our reward.
Throughout life, we become conditioned to eating treats in different settings. Maybe you can’t sit down to watch a movie without grabbing a snack first. You might be used to only allowing yourself to have treats on the weekend. Or you could have a hard time unwinding after work without food. These are all situations in which a person could find themselves overeating.
However, is this addiction or is it simply a learned response?
There are many activities that stimulate dopamine production besides eating: socializing, exercise, sleep, and physical touch. These are all activities that we need to engage in, in order to be healthy and maintain our well-being. We also need to produce a certain amount of dopamine each day for good physical and mental health. So if we engage a variety of these activities, we’ll make enough dopamine to meet our needs.
However, in our fast-paced society, many people are living unbalanced lives. Basic needs, like sleep, often go unmet. And self-care activities, like exercise and socialization, often get pushed aside for the sake of productivity. If you aren’t engaging in many dopamine-producing activities, that will make it difficult to make enough dopamine each day. For some people, eating may be their primary way of stimulating dopamine release. If this is the case, food will become extra enticing because there are few other rewards in their life.
Are you living a life of dopamine deprivation?
Likes & Interests
Beyond its role in survival, dopamine has also been associated with simple pleasures. When people listen to music, dopamine is released. A dopamine response has been observed in pet owners when they see their pet. When we enjoy something, we produce dopamine, which makes us want that thing more.
This raises the question: Are you addicted to food or do you just really enjoy it?
Food Addiction Experiments
Now that we have a good understanding of how brain chemistry affects our desire to eat, let’s talk about the scientific evidence on food addiction. You might have seen the attention-grabbing news headlines that sugar was found to be as addictive as cocaine. This claim came from a brain-imaging study on test subjects before and after eating sugar. It was found that eating sugar caused an area of the brain – the nucleus accumbens – to light up. This region has also been found to be stimulated by substances such as cocaine.
News outlets took that connection and ran with it. However, there have been other studies that show that many things cause the nucleus accumbens to light up. Anything pleasurable can do it. Even activities as benign as listening to music. (Salimpoor, 2011) You don’t see anyone comparing music to cocaine though!
Studies on animals suggest that what seems like food addiction could actually be the effects of dopamine at work. In rats, it’s been found that when the amount of food they’re allowed to eat is restricted, they will overeat when given sugar. However, when rats are allowed to eat as much as they want, they don’t eat as much sugar as their food-restricted counterparts. (Westwater et al., 2016) These findings align with what we know about hunger, dopamine, and the drive for survival.
So is food addiction real or not?
Currently, there is no conclusive evidence to support that food addiction is real. The number of studies on the topic is limited. And most of the studies that have been conducted have used animal subjects, which are less physiologically and psychologically complex than human beings. Ultimately, I believe that the label of food addiction demonizes food. It also disempowers people who are trying to make changes to improve their health and wellness. Rather than label someone as a food addict, I would rather help them discover the root causes of their overeating.
When I work with clients on their overeating, we put the principles of Intuitive Eating into practice. I teach them how to honour their hunger so that they don’t engage in primal overeating. We work on reversing that Pavlovian conditioning. We balance out dopamine-deprived lifestyles. And I help clients discover how to eat in a way that brings health and satisfaction into harmony.
Karissa Giraldi, RD
Salimpoor VN, Benovoy M, Larcher K, Dagher A, Zatorre RJ. Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nat Neurosci. 2011 Feb;14(2):257-62. doi: 10.1038/nn.2726. Epub 2011 Jan 9. PMID: 21217764.
Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2020). Intuitive eating: A revolutionary anti-diet approach. New York: St. Martin’s Essentials. pp 100 – 103.
Westwater, Margaret L et al. Sugar addiction: the state of the science. European journal of nutrition vol. 55,Suppl 2 (2016): 55-69. doi:10.1007/s00394-016-1229-6
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