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Eight Surprising Parallels Between Food and Drug Addictions

Food may be just as addictive as drugs or alcohol.

Although the jury is still out, a growing body of evidence shows some striking similarities between food addiction and drug addiction:

#1 Effect on the Brain’s Reward System

The American Society of Addiction Medicine, the nation’s largest professional society of physicians dedicated to treating and preventing addiction, now embraces a broad definition of addiction, which encompasses not only drugs and alcohol but also “process” addictions such as food, sex and gambling. Why? Because of the effect all of these substances and behaviors have on the brain.

Drugs – and to a lesser extent processed junk foods – flood the brain with the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, affecting the regions that govern pleasure and self-control. Over time, the function and structure of the brain change and dopamine receptors are reduced, making drugs, food and other substances less enjoyable but still desperately desired.

#2 Intense Cravings

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As a result of changes in the brain, compulsive eaters may find themselves craving sweet, salty, high-calorie processed foods like a junkie craves their next high. In animal studies, rats given periodic access to a sugary drink exhibited addictive behaviors such as bingeing when sugar was available. In a study by researchers at Yale University, just the sight of a milkshake could activate the same pleasure and reward centers of the brain as cocaine among people with addictive eating habits.

According to Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in some ways food can be considered even more addictive than crack. Fewer than 20 percent of people who use drugs like heroin and cocaine become addicted, while two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. Even more surprising, a 2007 French study showed that rats actually prefer sugar water to cocaine.

#3 Tolerance and Withdrawal

How do you know if you’re addicted? Two of the primary symptoms are tolerance (needing larger doses of the substance to experience the initial high) and withdrawal (physical and psychological discomfort when trying to quit). In studies, rats given fatty and sugary products demonstrated a strong desire for larger amounts, along with withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety and tremors when the products were taken away. These findings may help explain why people who eat a lot of cookies, chips and other processed foods crave more of those foods, even when they’re highly motivated to change their habits.

#4 Denial

Just as a drug addict deep in denial will insist, “I can stop any time I want,” people with food addictions may believe they “just like to eat.” According to a study from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, Americans routinely underestimate the number of calories they eat and how much they weigh, typically by about a pound a year.

#5 Repeated Attempts to Quit Unsuccessfully

How many times have you sworn off dessert or promised to start a diet on Monday, only to go back to old habits? For both drug addicts and compulsive eaters, will power alone isn’t always enough to quit. As many as 95 percent of people who lose weight gain it all back, if not more. Without a change in coping skills and lifestyle habits, both types of addicts are likely to make frequent attempts to quit without success.   

#6 Stigma

The compulsive use of drugs or food can prompt secrecy and shame. Drug addicts withdraw from loved ones and become isolated; food addicts may hide the evidence of a binge, eat alone and feel guilty after eating, which leads to more compulsive eating. Some give up their favorite activities because they are embarrassed about their weight or eating habits. While studies show that drug abuse carries a harsh stigma, weight bias is prevalent in employment, school and health-care settings.  

#7 Continuing the Behavior in Spite of Negative Consequences

Drug addicts continue to use even if they’ve lost everything that matters to them. While food addiction may not bankrupt your family or send you to jail in the same way as drug addiction, compulsive eaters may experience serious health consequences such as heart disease and diabetes, relationship problems, and diminished quality of life, yet continue to struggle with poor eating habits.

#8 Prevalence of Co-Occurring Disorders

Roughly half of drug addicts struggle with other mental health disorders. According to researchers from Toronto’s York University, it is also common for compulsive eaters to have other mental health issues such as depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. They were also three times more likely than others to meet the criteria for binge eating.

It’s no wonder it’s so difficult to lose weight: Many of the same factors that embroil people in a lifelong battle with drug and alcohol addiction are at work when we eat junk foods. While there are clear differences between drug addiction and compulsive eating, the similarities have become increasingly difficult to deny. If research continues in this direction, we may find medications and behavioral therapies playing an even more central role in the treatment of obesity.

Carolyn Ross, M.D, M.P.H., is an expert in Eating Disorders, Addictions, and Integrative Medicine, and author of The Binge Eating and Compulsive Overeating Workbook

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