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by Christina Wilson

Food addiction is both a compelling and controversial concept. Food is something we must consume to survive, which makes it qualitatively different from drugs of abuse. However, scientific research strongly suggests that excessively palatable foods can produce changes in brain chemistry similar to addictive classified drugs. Engineered junk food, typically high in sugar, fat, and salt, can significantly impact the brain's dopamine system and potentially contribute to food addiction-like behaviors. Here's how it works:

Dopamine and Reward System: Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in the brain's reward system. It is released when we experience pleasurable activities, such as eating delicious food. This release of dopamine reinforces the behavior and encourages us to repeat it.

Hyperstimulation of Dopamine: Junk food is often engineered to be highly palatable and rewarding, which means it can stimulate the release of dopamine more intensely than natural, unprocessed foods. This hyperstimulation can lead to a heightened sense of pleasure and reward when consuming junk food.

Tolerance and Desensitization: Over time, frequent consumption of junk food can lead to a desensitization of the brain's dopamine receptors. This means that the brain becomes less responsive to the same level of dopamine stimulation, requiring even more rewarding stimuli (in this case, more junk food) to achieve the same pleasurable effect. This is similar to how drug addiction can lead to tolerance.

Cravings and Addiction-Like Behavior: As tolerance develops, individuals may experience cravings for junk food because they seek to regain the heightened sense of pleasure. These cravings can lead to overeating and a cycle of addiction-like behavior, as people may continue to consume junk food even when they know it's harmful to their health.

Withdrawal Symptoms: When individuals try to cut back on or quit junk food consumption, they may experience withdrawal symptoms, including irritability, mood swings, and cravings. These symptoms can make it challenging to break the cycle of food addiction. Brain Changes: Studies using brain imaging have shown that the brains of individuals who frequently consume junk food can exhibit changes in regions associated with reward, decision-making, and impulse control, which are also observed in drug addiction.

It's important to note that while the term "food addiction" is sometimes used colloquially to describe an unhealthy relationship with certain foods, it is not officially recognized as a mental disorder in the same way that drug addiction is. Nevertheless, the concept of food addiction highlights the powerful influence that highly processed and hyperpalatable foods can have on our brains and behavior. Few would dispute that some individuals display an apparent loss of control over food intake, similar to those who abuse drugs and alcohol. Individuals can become stuck in an addicted/overeating cycle because of vulnerability to certain foods. Whether obesity is genetically hard-wired or environmentally driven certainly cannot be easily answered and requires further study and new approaches to clinical intervention. 

Nutritional intervention for compulsive eaters

One of the most helpful recommendations for physiologically overcoming cravings, overeating, and feeling addicted to foods is to purchase and choose foods that are as close to their original state as possible with minimal processing. Natural, whole foods are less likely to trigger the same dopamine effects and stimulate addictive cycles. Eating sufficient protein provides amino acids which help optimize neurotransmitters and helps keep blood sugar stable. People report feeling cravings and addictive feelings to be reduced when abstaining from binge foods and eating healthfully. 

Gearhardt A, Yokum S, Orr PT, et al. (2011). Neural correlates of food addiction. Archives General Psychiatry, 68(8), 808-16.

Joranby L, Pineda K, Gold M, et al. (2005). Addiction to food and brain reward systems. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, (12), 201-217.

Volkow N, Wise R. (2005). How can drug addiction help us understand obesity? Nature Neuroscience, 8(5), 555-560.

Davis C. (2013). From passive overeating to "food addiction": A spectrum of compulsion and severity. ISRN Obesity, doi: Article ID 435027, 20 pages.

Pollen M. (2008). In defense of food: An eaters manifesto. New York: Penguin Press.

Kessler, D. (2010) The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite 

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Christina Wilson
Christina Wilson

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