“Oh my god…this [insert delicious food] is better than crack.” Everyone from professional food critics to starving college students has used the phrase time and time again. Whether they are talking about nutella, krispy kreme donuts, or canyon pizza, everyone has experience a time where they believed they loved a food so much, that its magnitude was comparable to that of an addiction to an illicit drug—but most people aren’t serious when they make this statement because of the simple fact that most of them have not tried any illicit drugs. I will admit myself that I have experienced desserts that left me awake at night, rapt in thought of getting up in the morning to speed off to the grocery store to buy all of them off the shelf. And when I think about it more, I began to question whether or not I was addicted to food, or if it was even possible to be.
I found two articles on Time Magazine’s website that deconstructed the idea of food addiction and what it physically looked like on a person’s brain. In the first article, Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, acknowledged that the idea is controversial since many people have rejected it, however, believes that food can be as addictive as drugs. She believes that understanding the similarities between food and drug addictions could offer insight into an array of compulsive behaviors. Volkow described a similarity found between the brains with food and drug addictions—similar dysfunctions in the areas that are connected to pleasure and self-control. The neurotransmitter involved is dopamine, which these brain areas rely on, and a reduction in the number of dopamine D2 receptors were found both in drug addiction and obesity. That is why when we eat food we tend to feel happy and more relaxed, because dopamine elicits those feelings.
The second article in Time references a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry that suggests that there might not be a clear distinction between addictive and normal responses, adding to the evidence that all “addictions” act on the same motivational system. The study involved 48 health women ranging in weight from lean to overweight or obese. Their objective was to test the hypothesis that elevated “food addiction” scores are associated with similar patterns of neural activation as substance dependence. Their independent variable was whether or not the participate received a chocolate milkshake or tasteless substance—so the experiment was neither blind nor double-blind. The dependent variable was the neural response after beverage consumption. The study’s conclusion stated that there are similar patterns of neural activation in addictive-like eating habits and substance dependence, such as elevated activation in reward circuitry in response to food cues and reduced activation of inhibitory regions in response to food intake.
So currently, the evidence supports the hypothesis that one can actually become addicted to food. I feel like this study could go more in depth though, like whether or not some foods are more addict than others and if there are any negative side effects to food addiction similar to those of illicit drugs.