Are you a food addict? When you hear the word “addiction” typically alcohol, drug abuse, or these days…sex addiction spring to mind. But a growing body of research suggests some foods may be manipulating our senses and creating a response that looks strikingly similar to addiction.
Can Food Be Addictive?
While there is no clinically recognized definition of food addiction at the present time, using the same criteria established for drug and alcohol addiction, researchers have found many parallels between “food dependence” and substance abuse.
In one survey of 350 undergraduates, 11 percent of responders met criteria for food dependence. “Food dependence” includes a loss of control when eating, a persistent desire or effort to cut back, and heavy use (i.e. excessive consumption of food) despite deleterious consequences.
Is it possible that our brains are being hijacked by the chemicals in certain foods to induce cravings and binges? To answer this question scientists have been comparing brain scan patterns in response to particular foods and drugs. Some of the results have been startling. While the research on food and addiction is still in its infancy, it appears that overeating may dampen your dopamine response. A week dopamine response may prompt you to eat even more. People who don’t experience a sense of ‘reward’ from food (or drugs) will crave more because they are never satisfied.
There are also similarities between food dependence and drug abuse when it comes to external or “environmental cues”. Researchers found that obese teenage girls had a lower dopamine response when drinking milkshakes than normal weight teen girls. However the obese girls showed a significantly greater response to pictures of the shakes, often prompting overeating. A similar pattern is seen with drugs. Drug addicts have a reduced dopamine response to taking drugs, yet then have a tremendous response to visual cues related to drug taking, such as seeing drug paraphernalia.
Which Foods Are Most Likely to Be “Addictive”?
But can food really be addictive? And if so, what foods are most dangerous? Julie has written about sugar addiction, and the potential for sugar dependence has been most widely studied. For instance, when lab rats are exposed to sugar, they will overeat and eventually eat more and more. When the sugar is taken away, the rats show common signs of withdrawal: tremors and anxiety. They also experience a decline in dopamine receptors. In animal studies high-fat foods also appear to trigger overeating and weight gain, although, unlike sugar, there were signs of withdrawal when a high-fat diet is discontinued.
What to Do to Prevent Food Dependence
Exercise. In animal and human studies, vigorous exercise has been shown to increase dopamine receptors. Think “runner’s high” to replace a food high.
Avoid “trigger” foods. If you have struggled with binges, you probably know what foods are likely to set you off. It’s best to refrain from eating those foods altogether.
Cope with Stress in a “Healthy” Way. Life is full of stress, so while we can reduce it, we can’t avoid it entirely. It is critical to have positive coping mechanisms for when you feel overwhelmed. Listen to music, take a bath, exercise, meditate, reach out to helpful friends and family members to help you though tough times.
Be Mindful of External Cues. What we see, hear and smell is not always under our control, however limit your exposure to tempting sights and smells if you know they will trigger overeating.
Are you a food addict?
If you feel like your eating habits are out of control, seek out professional help. Speak to your physician or find a reputable registered dietitian who specializes in eating disorders.