Food Addiction



Food-AddictionIs it possible to be addicted to food or is addiction a poor excuse for lack of willpower? An increasing amount of people feel out of control when it comes to their eating and struggle through each day with health problems, emotional consequences and social limitations as a result.

More recent studies have shown that it is indeed possible to be addicted to food. Brain scans show that the pleasure centre of the brain (the Nucleus Accumbens) lights up in the same way for any addiction (alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, nicotine, food). As humans we are all about survival, either personal survival or survival of the human race. To help us survive we have the Nucleus Accumbens, which is where the dopamine receptors are in our brains. Dopamine is key to survival as it’s a neuro-transmitter that plays a part in our pleasure and reward system. We are programmed to repeat activities that increase our chances of survival (such as eating, sex and exercising) by being rewarded with a feeling of pleasure.

Why Become Addicted to Food?

So, why do some people become addicted to food? Our ancient brains are programmed to binge when the going is good, for example when a hunter brought back a large kill or we stumbled across a bush laden with juicy berries. This was an effective survival strategy before the advent of supermarkets. The problem now is that supermarkets are laden with high calorie foods and our brains aren’t equipped to overturn hundreds of years of effective survival in response.

As children we are sometimes rewarded or soothed with sugary, fatty foods. For example, if we weren’t invited to a friend’s birthday party and felt hurt and rejected (then were offered an ice-cream by way of compensation) our brain quickly develops neural pathways which might tell us that an ice-cream is the way to deal with hurt and rejection. Or, if we did particularly well in our exams and were rewarded with a slap up meal, a neural pathway will develop and we might expect a food reward for doing well.

At some point in our lives we are going to be in a situation where we feel very hurt or rejected. Or we might go through a period at work where we feel we have worked very hard and need lots of rewards. We might then reach for what we know – food. If we over indulge in response to emotional triggers our brain produces huge quantities of dopamine. This is not conducive to our well-being in the long run so two things happen: dopamine receptors in the nucleus accumbens begin to shut down and the quality of dopamine is downgraded. This means that we need either greater quantity or novelty to provide the levels of dopamine we have become used to. This is the tolerance and escalation that is seen in any addiction. The cravings for food are no longer about “like” they are about “want”.

What are the behaviours seen in food addiction?

  • Continuous eating throughout the day
  • Regulating food during the day, bingeing during the evening
  • Hiding food
  • Being unable to stop when full
  • Being unable to control what you eat
  • Restricting eating when with others then eating more when alone
  • Eating large amounts quickly
  • Eating in secret

These behaviours can have emotional consequences such as:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Shame and guilt
  • Never feeling satisfied (with anything)
  • Stress and tension that only food can soothe
  • Feeling out of control
  • Self-loathing and self-disgust
  • Loneliness and isolation

In any addiction a cycle can be observed. With a food addiction this is likely to consist of the following stages: emotional trigger – craving – ritual – using – guilt.

Quite often people attend slimming groups or sign up to expensive gyms to deal with the weight gain, unaware that unless they understand the underlying issues, any gains are likely to be short lived. Sometimes what prompts someone to tackle the problem is they can see it is affecting others around them. What is helpful is understanding the addiction, reducing feelings of shame, understanding your personal cycle of addiction and resolving the underlying emotional issues.

This cycle can be broken and it is possible to once again feel more in control.