Food Junkie

The emerging science of addictive overeating

Living to Eat

Under normal conditions drugs and food are very different. However, because the brain reward systems responsible for making drugs of abuse so addictive are the same pleasure systems that are activated by the foods we eat, our brains can have a hard time differentiating between the pleasure derived from mild doses of some drugs of abuse and some types of palatable foods. Read More

If you know you're inclined

If you know you're inclined to abuse something, you can choose to avoid it completely.... Unless that thing is food.


unless we isolate ourselves from the world, our daily environment is filled with cues for food and eating. It becomes pretty hard to avoid them when you see the billboards on your way to work, a fast food chain on every other block, and the abundance of food ads when on the internet.

The article queries:

"So when it’s proposed that certain foods with a high concentration of sugar or fast-digesting carbs in them may be addictive, what does this mean?" You never really answer that question.

I consider the concept of addiction overused. A philandering male is now a "sex addict." He just can't help himself. Color me skeptical. I must admit I view, perhaps unfairly, overweight people similarly. Of course, one can never know the intensity of craving experienced by another person, but I suspect that for the most part the issue is one of self-control. In the case of drug addiction, physical symptoms of deprivation far exceed mere strong cravings. No one breaks into a sweat for lack of a Big Mac or has DTs when no sexual partner is available. Therefore, I wonder what is the definition of addiction? In the case of food addiction, how does a clinician differentiate between addiction and a lack of commitment to better behavior? Perhaps there is an article somewhere that could explain this in layman's terms.

You raise an important point.

You raise an important point. Addiction is not just defined by one feature of behavior, but by several different, co-occuring features. For example, someone cannot be diagnosed with a substance use disorder if they only report strong cravings for the substance - this would also need to be accompanied by other evidence of dependence, such as using the substance despite harmful consequences, tolerance, withdrawal, etc. Evidence from our laboratory and others have tested the effects of overeating highly palatable diets, including sugar-rich foods, on multiple features of addiction and have found that overeating these types of food can result in a number of the behavioral patterns typically associated with drug addiction.

On another note, you are right that certain substances can lead to more extreme physical effects than others, however, this is also seen among different drug classes, with nicotine producing a milder effect than heroin though both drugs are recognized as having addiction potential.

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Nicole Avena, Ph.D. is a research neuroscientist and an expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction.


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