Do you find yourself eating when you’re not hungry? Do you sometimes feel sluggish or fatigued after overeating? Does giving in to cravings and eating your favorite foods help you reduce negative emotions and increase pleasurable thoughts? As time goes on, does this not work as well as it used to?
Recent studies and research have shown that different people have addictions to different foods. The biggest culprits are found in a category of food called hyperpalatables: foods that are sugary, starchy, fatty and salty. A growing group of scientists now thinks that there is a relationship between food and addiction, that foods can hijack your reward system much like drugs, alcohol, and the Internet.
The difficulty is that in all other addictions, a person can do without the addictive item. But food we can’t live without. It forces us to approach food in a totally different way.
Let’s first take a look at the principles of addiction and then we can come back to how to deal with food specifically.
We become addicted to a substance or activity for the same reason that we initially try it: because we like the way it makes us feel. And although some people may try a drug, take a drink or eat a donut and never become hooked, almost all of us have the capability to become addicted. Users cross a threshold and undergo a transition from enjoyment to addiction.
Research has shined a light on the changes that take place in the brain after this transition, developing the “brain disease” model of addiction. It’s currently the most widely held view of addiction among the scientific community.
The way we learn to survive is based on a reward system. When we do something that aids in our survival, like eating or exercising, our brain’s limbic system rewards us for this behavior by releasing dopamine, a chemical that makes us feel good. Since we like the way we feel, we learn to repeat the behavior.
Different substances approach the limbic system – the reward center – in our brains in different ways, but all substances of abuse cause the brain to release high levels of dopamine. This release can be two to 10 times the amount our brain releases normally, giving the user a sense of a “rush” or “high.”
Because of this release and its impact on the brain’s reward center, people learn very quickly to use a substance or engage in an activity. They learn this in the same way they learn to eat or exercise, but even faster and with more intensity, since the release of dopamine is so much larger. And since the amount of dopamine released is abnormal, the brain struggles to regain its normal chemical balance after a substance wears off. This produces a hangover, or withdrawal, from a substance, which can manifest in physical pain, depression and even dangerous behavior.
Over time, prolonged use of a substance can lead the brain to stop producing as much dopamine as it naturally does. This creates further withdrawal, leading to a physical dependency - the addict needs to use more of the substance just to feel normal, creating a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break.
Dopamine is actually dispersed throughout the brain. Ninety-percent of the dopamine neurons in an area of your brain called the VTA become stimulated right when you are about to eat. The VTA reaches out to the rest of the brain to stimulate dopamine secretion in several regions of the brain. In an effort to understand whether certain foods exert the same kind of addictive effect on the reward system as drugs, scientists have turned their attention to the reward centers in both normal and obese people.
Dr. Nora Volkow, M.D. and her team use PET scans and radioactive chemicals that bind dopamine receptors. Their research showed that obese people had far fewer dopamine receptors in their reward center, and therefore had to eat more to experience the same reward, or “high,” as average-weighted individuals.
Dr. Volkow also delved into the craving or wanting question. When people were exposed to their favorite foods but not allowed to eat them, an abundance of dopamine surged through the striatum section of the brain. They said they “hungered” for their food fixes, yet they weren’t hungry at all. This is frighteningly similar to what occurs in the brain of drug abusers after they watch a video of people using cocaine, or, for that matter, receiving any cue that reminds them of a previous addictive pleasure.
As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, there is a category of food which seems to be more addictive than others called hyperpalatables. Is sugar as addictive as heroin or cocaine? Animal studies say yes. And how do we withdraw from these foods? The key is something called Epigenetics.
Alan Freishtat is an A.C.E. certified personal trainer and a lifestyle fitness coach with over 17 years of professional experience. He is the co-director of the Jerusalem-based weight loss and stress reduction center Lose It!, now offering free testing for FOOD ADDICTIONS. Visit Lose It!‘s website at www.loseit.co.il or contact Alan at firstname.lastname@example.org.