Food Addiction: Causes, Effects and Treatments

Food Addiction

Susan Corder

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With the focus on what people eat and how much they eat being the center of attention in the world today the investigation into food addiction has brought an interesting view to our attention. With the astounding rate of obesity in our country attention must be given to the reasons why this is happening. Research has found that some foods seem to trigger a higher need to eat more of that food. So many people want to stop eating but cannot seem to break the habit. Research shows that the human brain reacts the same way to cocaine as it does with hyperpalatable foods such as sugar. In studies of the brain obese people have fewer D2 receptors than people who are normal weight. The most convincing research has been done through animal studies which showed that high fat, high sugar foods have similar addiction properties as abused drugs. With the results of research studies there is a new focus on the treatment and prevention of food addiction.

Food Addiciton

Obesity and the lack of ability to stop eating has been the focus of our society today. Recent research suggests that patterns of eating and patterns of drug abuse are similar (Gearhardt, Corbin, & Brownell, 2009). The food industry manipulates their food products to make them more appealing and desirable to consumers but when food takes over brain processes it becomes an issue (Lim, 2012). Globally over 1 billion adults are overweight and another 475 million are obese (Pedram, et al., 2013). At the current rate by the year 2050 almost all Americans will be obese or overweight (Pedram, et al., 2013). In the United States, obesity is the second most preventable cause of death (Pedram, et al., 2013). More than 200,000 premature deaths each year in the United States have been attributed to obesity (Dileone, Taylor, & Picciotto, 2012). The lack of ability to control eating and drug addiction has been the primary comparison in many research models (Dileaone, et al., 2012). An addiction is when a person has an inability to stop a behavior even though there a negative consequences. People who are obese express the desire to eat less but they continue to overeat even knowing it will cause negative consequences (Kenny, 2013). Until recently obesity was viewed as a behavior disorder because these people lacked self-control or willpower (Kenny, 2013). There is now biological evidence that food and drugs of abuse use similar pathways in the brain and dopamine is associated with the reward system of both (Gearhardt, et al., 2009). Everything in life is based on rewards but sometimes the brain becomes consumed on satisfying that urge for reward (Peeke, 2012).

In society today food consumption and the effects seem to be the center of attention. Many people struggle with weight issues during their life and many suffer from the emotional and physical effects of being overweight. Scheel (2011) states that, “food itself becomes a metaphor for control of life” (p. 19). I often question why we crave things such as sugar so much and why comfort food is called comfort food. With so much focus on what we should and should not eat it only seems reasonable to do research on why we love certain foods so much. My biggest reason for choosing this subject is my new struggle with food. After many years of health issues I discovered this past summer that I have a wheat allergy and now my entire world seems to have changed. I feel so much better but the cravings for certain foods are still there even though eating them would make me very sick. I am curious if these craving will ever go away or if it will be a lifelong struggle. My struggles have made me think about others who just can’t seem to stop eating and what they may be going through. I know my diet is very difficult but I have physical consequences of eating foods I should not but if there were not physical symptoms I know I would continue to eat them. Going to the grocery for me is very challenging now. Seeing all the foods that I can no longer eat and having to check every label for the forbidden ingredients is very challenging. So I can only imagine how a person with a food addiction feels all the time with food so readily available all around us.

Peeke (2012) states that “Food addiction is real- it is as powerful as drug addiction and is as hard to break as an addiction to gambling” (p. xiii). Research shows that overeating occurs in many people but some people develop an obsessive-compulsive relationship with food (Pedram, 2013). Research has also shown that there are similarities between patterns of food intake and in the consumption of abused drugs (Gearhardt, et al., 2009). Foods have also been shown to share characteristics with addictive drugs (Gearhardt, Grilo, Dileone, Brownell, & Potenza, 2011). Food cues and consumption of food have been linked to activate the same meso-cortico-limbic pathways that drug addiction activates (Gearhardt, et al., 2011). Brain imaging scans of an obese person are similar to the brain scans of a drug addict but very different than a person of normal weight (Beil, 2012). The two major similarities between drug addiction and food addiction are cravings and loss of control (Fortuna, 2012). In a study obese participants were shown pictures of a milkshake and a cocaine addict was shown a video of a person smoking crack cocaine (Fortuna, 2012). In both groups of participants there was increased activation in the anterior cingulate gyrus and the right amygdala (Fortuna, 2012). Another study showed that there is a link between the right amygdala and food and drug cravings (Fortuna, 2012).

Studies have linked obesity and levels of dopamine in the brain (Lim, 2012). Dopamine is, “considered the primary reward neurotransmitter in the brain” (Julien, Advokat, & Comaty, 2011, p. 696). Dopamine is what motivates individuals to engage in rewarding behaviors such as eating and having sex (Lim, 2012). When dopamine is released in the brain the person feels a burst of satisfaction and pleasure (Peeke, 2012). Obese people have lower levels of dopamine in their reward center of the brain than normal weight people (Lim, 2012). These levels of dopamine are comparable to the levels of dopamine in those addicted to cocaine, methamphetamine, and alcohol (Lim, 2012). Studies show that people with lower levels of dopamine have to eat more food or use more drugs to get the pleasurable effect (Lim, 2012). There is evidence that some people are born with dopamine systems that do not respond normally but on the other hand there is evidence that obese people have a low dopamine response due to their eating habits (Lim, 2012). The results of one study revealed that obese people had fewer D2 dopamine receptors in their brains (Beil, 2012). These D2 receptors are the ones that inhibits behaviors when they are stimulated (Beil, 2012). This lack of D2 receptors could lead a person to overeat by making them less sensitive and needing more food to get the same pleasure (Beil, 2012). Research has revealed that those who carry the A1 allele of the D2 receptor gene have about 30 percent less D2 receptors than those who carry the A2 allele of the D2 receptor gene (Murphy, 2012). This genetic link that predisposes a person to addiction has helped show that addiction may not be a character flaw but a true brain disease (Murphy, 2012).

Throughout the history of man there has been a scarcity of food and the human body adapted to those conditions (Fisher, 2005). But now that food is in surplus the human body is not equipped for the overload of food. The human brain has many ways to stimulate the appetite but only a few ways to turn the appetite off (Fisher, 2005). In addition to an abundance of food the food industry has created hyperpalatable foods that surpass the rewarding effects of traditional foods (Gearhardt, et al., 2011). Researchers believe that both genetic and environmental factors can lead to addictive behaviors including food addiction (Gearhardt, et al., 2011).

The strongest cases for food addiction come from animal studies even though some researchers argue that these studies are not comparable to the human condition (Beil, 2012). Research shows that fatty and sweet foods increase the release of dopamine in the brain and as a result the pleasurable feelings are increased (Levitan & Davis, 2010). In one animal study the animals were given cafeteria food consisting of high fat and high sugar for one hour each day (Beil, 2012). Over time the animals began to binge of the cafeteria food instead of eating the healthier food that was available all day (Beil, 2012). The animals still preferred the cafeteria food even though they would have to endure a risk of an electrical shock to get it (Beil, 2010). In another study high doses of sugar were offered to animals and when the sugar was taken away the animals experienced withdrawal symptoms of tremors, anxiety, and chattering teeth (Beil, 2010). Often drugs are thought to be the most addictive but in a study rats would work for sweet rewards more than for cocaine (DiLeone, et al., 2012). Results of the animal studies show possible changes in the brain of the animal that can be passed to the next generation (Beil, 2012). The offspring of animals that were on a high fat diet while pregnant had neurological alterations in the part of the brain that controls appetite, had changes in the reward mechanism of the brain, and showed a preference for sugar and fat (Beil, 2012). Studies show that most Americans, including children, eat their body weight in sugar each year (Fortuna, 2012).

Since the addiction to food is similar to drug addiction then the same prevention and treatment interventions should be effective to treat food addiction (Gearhardt, et al., 2011). The big difference between the two is that drugs are not needed for survival like food (Peeke, 2012). People, places, and things that substance abusers avoid to prevent relapse cannot be avoided with food addiction (Peeke, 2012). In the past the first approaches to obesity were based on the personal responsibility and behavior change but with the new research more focus is on the how some foods are triggering food addiction (Gearhardt, et al., 2011).

Pamela Peeke (2012) has created her own way of dealing with food addiction. She believes that through a three-stage lifestyle makeover and weight management plan one can learn to manage their food addiction (Peeke, 2012). The Yale Food Addiction Scale has been developed to aid in behavior studies, psychophysiological studies, weight loss studies, and neuroimaging studies that will help further explore the concept of food addiction (Gearhardt, et al., 2005). Understanding food addiction can change how psychologists treat those that use comfort foods to induce positive emotions and deal with the true source of the person’s issues (Levitan & Davis, 2010).

Researchers believe that adolescence is a critical time for the development of healthy eating habits (Levitan & Davis, 2010). During this time adolescents experience significant stress and negative emotions (Levitan & Davis, 2010). Scheel (2011) believes that the lack of emotional attachment within families may be the main source of all eating disorders. Research shows that early prevention strategies and stress management have shown success in managing overeating behaviors (Levitan & Davis, 2010). Fortuna (2012) believes that early health education is key to help children develop healthy eating habits for life. Peeke (2012) says that we must treat food addiction like we would treat any other life threatening addiction and vigilance is necessary for recovery. In the field of addiction, children should also be taught about food addiction and its consequences in life.

In many places in the bible we are taught about being addicted to earthly things and how these things will cause trials in our lives. A therapist can use many versus about addiction in the bible to teach and guide their clients. The Bible tells us that, “For the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty” (Proverbs 23:20, New King James Version). Paul tells us about worldly lusts, “teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:12). To avoid worldly addictions Paul says, “I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the list of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). Other teachings show us how we should treat our earthly bodies. Paul writes that, “For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Corinthians 6:19). Jesus teaches us that, “Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing” (Luke 12:23). Through the many teachings in the bible a therapist can help their clients find peace, acceptance, and forgiveness so that they may find recovery from their addiction.

Everyone probably deals with some type of addiction at some point in life whether it is food or something else. Food addiction awareness is still new but more and more researchers are starting to acknowledge that it is real. Many people suffer greatly form the emotional effects of obesity due to their food addiction. Research has shown that food addiction is really like drug addiction and the body responds to sugary, fatty foods the same way as it does to drugs (Gearhardt, et al., 2009). As a result of current research more treatment options should become available to those who are struggling with food addictions. Teaching children when they are young about healthy eating habits can help them avoid food addiction and the emotional turmoil that goes along with it. Hopefully with this new research, those dealing with food addiction can receive help and be able to break their addiction and change their lives.


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