The Insidious Nature of Food Addiction
What would you do if you had to score Cadbury’s Dairy Milk on the street? Or if you had to smuggle ready salted crisps across the country hidden in the false bottom of a suitcase? Or pay £100 for a can of Coke?
The fact that these products are legal and enjoyed by many does not mean they are good for us. Moreover, recent figures published in the book ‘TIME – The Science of Addiction’ in 2019, suggest that food may be as addictive as drugs, and in some cases more so. According to the book, 30% of people who try heroin and about 16% who try cocaine become addicts. When the same definition of addiction was applied to obese people, 30% branded themselves as addicted to food. The obesity rate in adults for both genders in England and Scotland is 29%, which suggests an unhealthy dependency on food is common in the UK. Overeating can display the same level of compulsion as smoking, drinking, or doing drugs. Just like these other addictions, eating can become a full-blown addiction by following the standard addiction loop:
Unhealthy food encourages addictive eating
In a way, food is more insidious than other forms of addiction as we all have to eat. Abstinence is not an option, unlike other forms of addiction. You certainly don’t hear people saying ‘Sorry, I can’t. I’m off food.’ when you asked them over for dinner. Food addiction is particularly uncontrollable when we expose our palate/brain to high sugar, fatty, processed food. These are the type of products that advertisers bombard us with every day. Unhealthy food encourages addictive eating due to its combination of sugar, fat and salt; individually they are rather uninviting, together they become ‘irresistible’. That’s why we salivate in front of a box of doughnuts but wouldn’t dream of eating spoons of sugar out of the bowl.
The feeling of pleasure is caused in the brain by several mechanisms including dopamine, which helps us experience primal pleasures: sex, intoxication… and food. When the level of dopamine drops, our behaviour can be affected dramatically, leading to impulsive eating with little regard to the consequences.
Hormones can influence compulsive eating
Leptin is the hormone responsible for making us feel full at the end of a meal. Experiments carried out on animals demonstrated that fatty, sugary food can increases the resistance to leptin hence leading to a higher amount of food intake before feeling satisfied. On that basis, eating unhealthily trains our brain to continue to do so in increasingly larger quantities. This is the same behaviour pattern as any other addiction and has similar consequences – dependency, and too often, misery.
The joy we find in food – unlike drugs or alcohol – can be experienced in moderation. However, because we are subject to the daily intake of food, eating can easily spin out of control. Compulsive eaters fight as difficult a battle as other addicts and deserve every bit of the support in their endeavours towards recovery.
Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in her 2015 TedMed presentation about addiction, stated that the inability to stop doing something when you want to is at the heart of addiction—and when it comes to food, we’re all at risk. Obesity is an epidemic.