Food Addiction Is Not About Willpower

Research reveals the brain chemistry behind the struggle with overeating

Posted Aug 31, 2016

Carolyn Ross/Shutterstock
Source: Carolyn Ross/Shutterstock

Have you ever heard a friend exclaim that a certain dessert – flourless chocolate cake, say – is “totally addictive”? For some people, this is just a breezy exaggeration. They mean that they liked the cake very much and perhaps ate more than they meant to.

But for other people, chocolate cake is addictive in a more literal sense. Perhaps you can relate to feeling out of control around certain foods. Visions of donuts dance in your mind. You become preoccupied with the thought of stopping by the bakery. And despite your best intentions, you find it impossible to resist these foods or stop eating them once you get started.

This is now being called food addiction, and it is a very real problem in the same way that addiction to alcohol or illicit drugs is for some people. Out-of-control eating can cause obesity and related health problems. It can also lead to strong feelings of shame.

Obsession with food can take over your life and create distance between you and those you love. You may find yourself so obsessed with food that it interferes with work or school. The body image issues associated with obesity can keep you from doing things you want to do.

Calling this problem an addiction is not merely metaphorical. Recent research has shown that substance use disorder and food addiction both involve the same biochemical processes in the brain.

Eating triggers the dopamine reward center in the brain, making food a source of pleasure. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that regulates emotion and motivation. The release of dopamine is the brain's way of rewarding us for engaging in basic life-sustaining behaviors like eating and sex.

But dopamine is also released when we do pleasurable things that aren’t so good for us. For people who use alcohol or drugs, it is dopamine that produces the high that keeps them coming back for more. The same is true for food addicts. According to researchers, the pleasure of eating very palatable foods – especially those that are sweet or fatty – can trigger the same responses in the brain as addictive drugs.

Food addiction is what’s called a process addiction. This means that you’re addicted not so much to the food itself as to the feelings you get from eating it. Other process addictions include compulsive gambling and sex.

According to to research in the field of neuroscience, any addiction – whether to eating, alcohol, or something else – follows a predictable cycle. Here’s how this works when it comes to food.

The high. When you eat your favorite food, your brain gives you a hit of dopamine. You experience a rewarding sense of pleasure. You also learn to associate that pleasure with the food you just ate, and that food becomes a cue for the possibility of more pleasure in the future.

The slump. With time, ordinary pleasures (such as talking with a friend) lose their potency compared to the reward you get from eating. But eventually, eating triggers smaller increases in dopamine. It doesn't give you quite the same high that it used to. Worse yet, your brain circuitry responds in ways that make you feel depressed, irritable, or stressed out – which only makes you want to eat more in order to feel better.

The craving. At this point, things start to go awry in the parts of your brain that are responsible for deciding how important something is, making decisions, and initiating action. It becomes extremely difficult to resist strong urges. This explains why you find it so hard to avoid overeating a certain food, even when you've sworn you'll never do that again.

If this sounds familiar, don’t despair. Your struggles with food and eating are not a matter of willpower or personal weakness. Thinking of food addiction as a disease of the brain, just like substance addiction, can help you look at your own experience with less judgment. That alone can make you feel much better. But the brain science model of addiction suggests new strategies for recovery, too.

Avoid environmental cues. For people who have abused substances, this means staying away from the bars where they drank or the people with whom they used drugs. If you struggle with eating, this might mean steering clear of the stores or restaurants where you got your favorite foods or turning off the TV when you see ads for them.

Turn up the volume on everyday, healthy rewards. With time, you can recalibrate your brain to once again get real satisfaction from ordinary pleasures like going for a walk outdoors, spending time with family, or chatting with a friend.

Learn to manage stress and unpleasant emotions. Addiction can wreak havoc on your mood, and both stress and strong emotions can make you feel that you need another “fix” to feel better. But you can literally rewire your brain, strengthening the pathways of contentment and self-control. To do this, try a relaxation technique such as visualization, guided imagery, or progressive muscle relaxation. Some people find relief by practicing yoga or mindfulness. For others, cultivating spirituality is the key.

If you struggle with food addiction, take heart. It’s not a personal failing. You’re up against some very powerful brain chemistry. But with patience and persistence, you can break free and reclaim your ability to savor the things that are truly good in life.