Compulsive Eating: Exploring the Science Behind Food Addictions

Can food really be as addictive as alcohol? That question is being asked more frequently today, with no clear answer just yet. Recent research is pointing to food having chemically addictive properties, similar to substances like alcohol, cocaine, or heroin. Using brain imaging techniques, studies keep coming to a common answer: food appears to create a chemical craving in the brain for some people.
Many factors have been studied to help determine the addictive properties of food. Some chemicals in the brain, the type of food we eat, and how much a person weighs have all been considered, but it is still unclear what exactly makes food addictive.

For a substance to be addictive, it needs to show three or more of the following: tolerance after taking large amounts, withdrawal symptoms, overuse, failed attempts to stop use, too much time spent getting or using the substance, spending less time on work or social activities, and continued use of the substance even though it is known to cause harm. It has been argued that food goes through enough of these stages to be labeled as a substance addiction.

When someone is addicted to something like alcohol or cocaine, the substance affects the brain by interfering with brain signals and causing an increase of certain chemicals in the brain. These substances also affect the brain’s reward system, causing increased amounts of pleasure.

The brain’s reward system is influenced by two main chemicals, dopamine and opioids. When a person uses substances like alcohol or cocaine, the amount of dopamine in the brain increases greatly, causing increased feelings of pleasure. Recent studies have shown that eating foods made with large amounts of sugar, salt, and flour, also cause large increases in the amount of dopamine in the brain. Why this happens is still unknown, but studies have shown that even mice without taste buds have large amounts of dopamine flooding the brain after eating sugar. It may not be the delicious taste of chocolate cake and other sweets that is causing a release of dopamine.

Opioids are another chemical that fuels the brain’s reward system along with dopamine. Some studies have shown that excessive sugar intake causes increased opioid release. Opioids are released when we eat food and also cause feelings of pleasure and reward. When people feel a reward from eating, it can lead to frequent overeating and possibly addiction.

“I can’t control my eating”; “I’m addicted to sweets”. These are just some common phrases heard from patients around nutrition clinics. Food addiction, or compulsive overeating, is becoming more of a norm. Although there is not an answer right now if food can be as addictive as alcohol or cocaine, some people are unable to control how much they eat. Group or individual counseling and mindful eating strategies are very helpful treatment options and do not require strict food restrictions. Both focus on getting the person to identify when they feel hungry and full, their food likes and dislikes, and to enjoy the health benefits of food. Support is also offered at your local VA. Registered dietitians are available to meet for individual counseling sessions and group programs, like the MOVE! weight management program, provide additional support from dietitians, doctors, and social workers.

Support groups are also available for extra guidance. Overeaters Anonymous (OA) gives people an option to talk with others who are going through a similar struggle, but does not offer nutrition advice or promote cutting out major food groups. Instead, they use group support to help members stop overeating. For more information on getting support for food addictions, check out The Center for Mindful Eating or Intuitive Eating and consider meeting with a registered dietitian and a mental health professional for additional help and support.

Nora Deignan is currently a dietetic intern at Hines VA Hospital and recent graduate of Illinois State University. She has greatly enjoyed working closely with the Veteran community since starting her internship in August. Soon to be an RD, she aspires to work as a dietitian in a clinical setting to begin her career.

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5 Comments to “Compulsive Eating: Exploring the Science Behind Food Addictions”

  1. beatrice baker says:

    Hi Nora,
    I am in the move program at Hines. This article is very good, it breaks down addiction and how the Opoids chemical fuels brain rewards, which makes us eat without being hungry. I guess like any other addiction to drugs, sex and gambling.

    Thank You for the information

    • Nora says:

      Thank you for the feedback! I’m glad you enjoyed reading my post and hopefully learned a little more on this topic. It’s great to hear you are participating in the MOVE! program, too!

  2. Nick says:

    This info is 20 years behind the times.

  3. Heather says:

    Keep in mind that, although the science has been clear for many, many years regarding the addictive properties of substances in food, the media generally will not tell you that the food industry specializes in creating addictive (and very toxic) substances in laboratories (saccharin, aspartame, monosodium glutamate, etc.) to put in processed (read: junk) and even regular food (there are proposals to put aspartame in MILK without labeling it, which should be illegal, considering that aspartame is a highly poisonous substance that conclusively causes diabetes, blindness, fibromyalgia, and a host of other disorders – research it if you don’t believe me). Even refined sugar, that is commonly added to literally just about everything, and especially high-fructose corn syrup, has been known to be extremely addictive for years (and, not to mention, is a causative factor in obesity. Does anyone wonder why the U.S. has one of the most overweight populations in the world?). The food industry knows that these substances are highly addictive (and care not that they are extremely harmful to your health – it benefits the medical industry); therefore, since they are 100% profit-driven, it benefits them to deliberately include these substances in processed “food.” Not us – unless you’re smart enough to know to not consume these poisons in the first place.