Whether or not “food addiction” is a recognised diagnosis there are clearly many similarities between food and eating disorders and drug addictions.
There are four major components of addiction:
- Bingeing where you consume until excess,
- Withdrawal where you feel crap when you don’t get it,
- Craving when you feel an intense desire for something, and
- Cross-sensitisation – when one addictive substance predisposes someone to become addicted to another.
Current knowledge is not yet clear on all the processes that may separate foods from drugs with regard to these areas, but all of these components have been observed in animal models of addiction – for sugar, as well as drugs of abuse.
Certain foods and drugs activate the same reward pathway in our brain. Our brain has this pathway which evolved to help us seek pleasurable things. When we come across something good for our survival, like food, sex, succeeding in something or being complimented – our brain’s reward pathway fires off and we get a release of dopamine and we suddenly feel rewarded for getting that thing. Illicit drugs like cocaine and amphetamines can do this do which is why it is so hard for some people to stop. But some foods can do this as well, especially high-calorie foods like sugary and fatty foods.
When we repeatedly use the drug or food it creates brain changes and tolerance to that substance – meaning we need more of that food to get the same nice feeling.
And finally quitting that drug or food can be difficult because the brain created associations and cues with other things in our life. For example, you might initially have a stressful day, you have some chips or candy and you get a little dopamine hit and for a moment you feel better. You do that again and again and the brain connects any stress with needing candy to manage it. So the next time you feel stress your brain automatically fires your desire for that food again because it has associated the two. That can make it hard to let go of that food because we are constantly reminded of them. So we have to decouple that process, meaning we have to remove the association of stress and stress relief with that food. Fortunately, the brain can change and rewire and this is possible but it can be difficult for the first few weeks in particular.
Luckily the benefits you feel pretty quickly from eating healthy food is quite amazing, more energy and more clarity. However individual responses vary greatly, and some humans and animals are more responsive than others which is why we don’t all get such strong urges, but for some people, it can be extremely hard to control and it can feel like food is a drug.