What Causes Out-Of-Control Eating?

Reward deficiency syndrome may be the culprit.

Posted Oct 30, 2015

Do you ever wonder why it is that your friend can eat just one little scoop of ice cream and feel satisfied, while you end up eating all the way to the bottom of the carton and feeling sick and miserable afterward? Does it seem that everyone else can use chocolate recreationally, when you crave it like an addict and can’t take one bite without going on a full-on chocolate bender? Have you ever caught yourself daydreaming about stopping by the bakery on your way home from work to get your next pastry fix?

If you’ve ever joked ruefully about being a “junkie” when it comes to one food or another, you’re not too far off the mark. Struggling with out-of-control eating can feel like an addiction, and indeed it is a type of addiction. The fact is, overeating isn’t as simple as a lack of self-control, and kicking food addiction isn’t just a matter of willpower.

Researcher Kenneth Blum suggests that it all comes down to something he calls reward deficiency syndrome. RDS involves a failure in the brain’s dopamine reward system. Dopamine is the brain chemical responsible for feelings of pleasure. Anything that feels good – eating tasty food, enjoying a glass of wine, or having sex – affects this same part of the brain.

Not surprisingly, most people find eating very pleasurable. But people with RDS have fewer dopamine receptors and therefore do not feel the full effect of dopamine in the brain. This means that you don’t get the same level of gratification that someone with a normal number of receptors does. For this reason, you may eat too much (or overdo it when it comes to alcohol or sex) in an unconscious attempt to boost your brain levels of dopamine and feel a sense of pleasure. 

As if that weren’t bad enough, your brain chemistry can play a second trick on you. Normally, the brain’s hardwiring works in favor of the human species, motivating us to repeat activities that are life sustaining by connecting them to feelings of pleasure or reward. This explains why we crave food and sex: they’re essential to survival.

However, this hardwiring can go awry. When you use food to comfort yourself or to numb emotional pain, this behavior can lock into the same reward-equals-survival dynamic that drives us toward life-sustaining activities like sex. The brain thinks If it feels good, it must be important to my survival, so I will keep doing it. The result is that you feel obsessed with eating, and you may binge on foods you find comforting.

So, if you have RDS, a scarcity of dopamine receptors in the brain makes it harder for you to feel pleasure. You end up seeking more and more of the things that do bring you some pleasure. And your brain makes you feel as if eating that carton of ice cream or getting a hold of a bag of pastries is a matter of life or death.

Okay, you’re thinking, so there’s a name for what’s going on in my brain. How does that help?

First, it’s easier to forgive yourself if you know your food addiction is a matter of brain chemistry and not personal weakness. Understanding it as a result of reward deficiency syndrome can help you move away from the self-blame that is so common among people who struggle with overeating, binging or food addiction.

Second, knowing that your brain handles pleasure and reward in a particular way can help you understand that you might be vulnerable not only to food addiction but other types of addiction as well. In fact, if you kick your food addiction without understanding how your brain works, you may just pick up another addiction (like out-of-control drinking or gambling) instead. Dr. Blum points out that this often happens to people who’ve had weight-loss surgery.

Most importantly, understanding RDS can also point you toward an effective solution. Whatever you’re addicted to, recovery is a matter of healing your brain chemistry. The same types of things that help people overcome alcoholism – namely, social support and spiritual meaning – can be your most important tools in moving beyond food addiction. These things increase the feel-good chemicals in your brain. They give you true pleasure and satisfaction that don’t come from food.  As well, understanding that your problem is not due to a lack of willpower should point you away from the quick fix of fad diets and towards a more long term solution such as therapy to address emotional issues related to overeating, supplements that can help you heal the brain and changes in lifestyle such as the anti-inflammatory diet and regular exercise that in the long run will give you the results you need and want.