(BlackDoctor.org) – You hear about it all the time. Or, you go through this personally – eating something, anything all day long, drowning in chocolate or any other food that honestly feels like it’s helping you get through your day. And many pounds later, you wonder if there’s any way to stop. It seems that everywhere you turn—dinner parties, your best friend’s kitchen, bookstores, even talk shows—someone is confessing to having a food addiction. For years, experts scoffed at the notion that you could actually be hooked on chocolate or chips. Some still do. But recently, high-tech medical scans have revealed surprising similarities in the brain chemistry of drug addicts and chronic overeaters—resemblances that have caught the attention of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“We’re involved in studies of brain changes associated with obesity,” says Nora D. Volkow, MD, director of NIDA, whose 2001 study pioneered some of the food-addiction research. “We’re doing it because many compounds that inhibit compulsive eating may also inhibit compulsive drug intake. The neurocircuitry overlaps.”
The behavior of compulsive eaters also lends some new support to this idea of addiction—the cravings and preoccupation with food, the guilt, the way these overeaters use food to relieve bad feelings, and the fact that binges are frequently conducted at night or in secret. Now some addiction and obesity experts have started to use the “A” word in connection with food and even to speculate that it may be partly responsible for America’s rising obesity rate.
“Food might be the substance in a substance-abuse disorder that we see today as obesity,” says Mark Gold, MD, chief of addiction medicine at the University of Florida College of Medicine.
No one—Gold included—is suggesting that an addiction to food could be as strong as the one that drives people addicted to cocaine or heroin. Still, the research into the connection between overeating and addiction isn’t just academic. It may finally put to rest the idea that anyone who eats excessively simply suffers from a lack of self-discipline. More important, the emerging evidence points to some very concrete steps anyone can take to eat in a saner, healthier way.
Blame It on the Brain
It’s not all about willpower. Research at the US Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York suggests that adequate brain receptors for dopamine may be missing, a chemical that is part of the brain’s motivation and reward system. “Dopamine is the chemical that makes you say aah,” says Gene-Jack Wang, MD, clinical head of positron emission tomography imaging at Brookhaven and leader of a series of studies investigating the brain chemistry of chronic overeaters. “It gets us to go over and grab something that will make us feel good.”
“If you have someone who is not responsive to natural reinforcers, that person may be more vulnerable to taking drugs,” Volkow says. “If you get stimulated only by food, guess what happens? You can easily fall into patterns of compulsive eating.”
What the Compulsion Feels Like
It doesn’t take a brain scan to see the similarities between someone addicted to drugs or drink and a compulsive overeater. Like the alcoholic who continues to drink despite seeing her life crumbling around her, the overeater will consume food to the detriment of her social and family life. She may know that her eating is harming her health, but it doesn’t matter, says Gold.
“I actually passed out once,” says Terry Young, 40, of Cincinnati, who calls herself a sugar addict. “It was a total binge, with a gallon of ice cream, cookies, candy bars—like an alcoholic on a bender.”
Is It Nature…or Nurture?
Addiction and obesity both run in families, and experts believe that genetic components account for at least some of a person’s vulnerability. But animal research also suggests that the environment—mainly, how often you’re exposed to an addictive substance—can shift brain neurochemistry, increasing the likelihood of addiction. One hint that environment plays a role comes from studies in which animals were repeatedly given cocaine: Frequent use actually decreased the number of dopamine receptors, says Wang.
If that’s the case, we live in an environment perfectly designed to nurture food addictions. For decades, food-industry scientists have been working hard to figure out how better to hook people, claims David L. Katz, MD, MPH, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in Derby, CT, and author of The Flavor Point Diet.
Manufacturers now excel at hitting the sweet spot—making us crave more and more of a food. “In a supermarket recently, I actually found a pasta sauce that, serving for serving, contained more sugar than a chocolate fudge sauce, though the sweetness was hidden because the pasta sauce was so salty,” Katz says. “The question is, why would anybody pour a packet of sugar over their pasta? And the answer is that if you get used to that much sugar, another pasta sauce will taste too bland. The food industry wants us to need more and more of the substance to feel satisfied, so we’ll go out and buy more and more of it.”
It’s possible that repeatedly bingeing on sweets could actually change the circuitry of your brain”—and make you want ever-increasing amounts.