Understanding Food Addiction As The Neurophysical Cause Of Obesity


Obesity is a very common condition in our society. In the United States, obesity is second only to tobacco as the leading cause of preventable death, and the gap is growing closer every year. Obesity has become an epidemic today. How and why can a person eat so much food until their very life is at risk? The answer is food addiction. When the consumption of food becomes an habitual event, not for survival bur for pleasure and/or physical dependence, it is known as an addiction. Food addiction can be compared with substance abuse to find striking similarities. Specific foods are capable of promoting addiction-like behavior and physical changes in the brain.

Understanding Food Addiction As The Neurophysical Cause of Obesity

Food addiction is often diagnosed by an obsession of food, weight and a general loss of control over how much food is eaten. It includes a compulsive pursuit of a change in emotional state by repeatedly eating various kinds of food in any amount just in order to elevate one’s mood. Often these eating activities are done despite the threat of adverse consequences.

The actual term “food addiction” is defined as a physical, biochemical condition of the body that creates cravings for refined carbohydrates, sugar and fat (Katherine M.A., Ann, 1996). These cravings and their underlying biochemistry can be compared to an alcoholic’s carving for alcohol or a junkie’s craving for drugs. In the food addict’s mind, there is a constant preoccupation with thoughts about getting, preparing and eating food. Because the food addict usually eats too much, the consequence is gaining weight, which eventually leads to obesity.

The medical community at large had not yet fully embraced the possibility that food can be addictive. Until the mid 1930’s, society treated drunks the same way that it treats food addiction today. Since addiction is a behavioral problem, one must decide whether or not addiction to food can really be called on “addiction”. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, or the DSM IV-TR, has seven named criteria for substance dependence (APA, 2000):
1. Tolerance to substance.
2. Withdrawal symptoms from substance.
3. Taking the substance in larger amounts to relieve withdrawal.
4. Persistent desire or unsuccessful effort to control use of substance.
5. Spending a great deal of time obtaining or recovering from effects of substance.
6. Giving up social, occupational or recreational activities because of substance.
7. Continuing use of substance despite knowledge of causing or exacerbating a physical or psychological problem.
These seven criteria can be used to qualify addiction to any substance. Food should not be excluded.

It is true that certain foods, just like certain drugs, can be addictive. The common factor is the refinement process. Addictive foods have the same origin as addictive chemicals. They were once a form of plant life that has undergone the refinement process in order to be ingested into the body by eating, drinking, inhaling or injecting (Katherine M.A., Ann, 1996). The refinement process facilitates quick absorption of substances into the bloodstream which effectively alters brain chemistry and changes in mood by flooding the brain with neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine. Food addicts seek this mood change by eating refined and processed food. This results in short-term “highs”, followed by long term “lows” and depression. In order to avoid the low, the addict eats more food to feel better. Unfortunately for most, the reaction is that they often feel worse because in doing so, the brain is “flooded” with neurotransmitter activity.

The brain chemical dopamine – the neurotransmitter associated with triggering feelings of satisfaction and pleasure – plays a significant role in the eating patterns of a food addict. According to a study done at Brookhaven National Laboratory, research scientists have linked dopamine to many addiction related activities seen in obese subjects (Wang et al, 2001). Dopamine is a chemical that helps humans feel pleasure when eating food. This slightly “high” feeling is a part of our system that causes us to want to seek and eat food at regular intervals in order for the species to survive over time. Be it that this system has a natural basis that helped our ancestors continue to live on this planet, today food is not just seen a mode of survival, but as pleasure for the food addict.

When a person overeats, dopamine is flooded into the brain. To accommodate this overload, studies show that dopamine receptors become depleted over time direct response to the flood. This happens so that the brain does not become “over stimulated” when unnecessary food is eaten. With fewer dopamine receptors in the brain, a person would have to eat more food more often to get that same good feeling. This is the pattern that is so similar to drug addiction and alcoholism. The more the user takes , the greater the reduction of receptor sites, causing them to ingest larger amounts of addictive substances over time to produce the desired effect. When the tolerance level is high enough, withdrawal symptoms will follow because the brain becomes physically dependent on the continuous overflow of neurotransmitters.

The Brookhaven scientists have done extensive research showing that obese people may eat more food than normal eaters in order to try and stimulate the dopamine “pleasure” circuits in their brains, just like a drug addict or an alcoholic. “The results from this study suggests that strategies aimed at improving dopamine function might be beneficial in the treatment of obese individuals,” says physician Gene-Jack Wang, the lead scientist on the study (Tartaglia, 2001). “Since eating, like the use of addictive drugs, is highly reinforcable behavior, inducing feelings of gratification and pleasure, we suspected that obese people might have abnormalities in brain dopamine activity as well,” says psychiatrist Nora Volkow, who was also involved in the Brookhaven study (Tartaglia, 2001).

Another study at Brookhaven showed brain-imaging of genetically obese rats that provided more evidence in support of food addiction (Walsh, 2007). Neuroscientist Peter Thanos found that these rats had lower levels of dopamine D2 receptors than lean rats. Also, the study showed that food restriction increased the number of D2 receptors over time. The actual brain scans were done when the rats were one month old and again at four months old. The obese rats that had restricted diets showed a marked increase in D2 receptors that were not present at one month old.

Processed and refined foods have dozens of ingredients that can trigger an addictive response. Sugar is one of the substances in particular has been studied by medical and scientific research. It has been found that sugar can be just as addictive as cocaine (Lenoir et al, 2007). The findings of Serge Ahmed, PhD., a scientist who specializes in food addiction, clearly demonstrated in his research that intense sweetness from sugar surpasses even cocaine reward. His cocaine addicted lab rats consistently chose sugar over cocaine. When the rats were then deprived of the sugar, they worked even harder to get it and then consumed more sugar than they had eaten previously. When the sugar was restricted again, the rats’ teeth chattered and they did not want to socialize. This ultimately suggests craving and withdrawal behaviors.
Most of our food supply has been processed and refined to a point that it has become more of a drug and less of a nutrient. In an average grocery store you will find whole aisled of food that contain no “food” in them at all. For food addicts, these types of highly refined foods act as a mood-altering drug with numerous negative health consequences. Some say that the food industry intentionally alters the taste of processed foods in order the purposely create an addiction to them in order to make money. In their defense, producers of highly palatable and unhealthy foods simply claim that most people can consume these products safely and that we need only to concentrate our effort on the small proportion of people with a food addiction (Katherine, 2006).
America’s increasing epidemic of obesity tells the story of how processed and refined adversely effects our society. Traditionally, food addiction has been treated as an “eating disorder”. Doing so has not been found to be effective for food addicts. It is clearly more accurate, as research has shown, to treat food addiction as substance dependence where the substance is refined processed foods. Treating this condition takes abstinence from the substance and support and counseling through the withdrawal period. Next should be more public education as to the nature of food addiction and its many effects on the body. A food addict needs recovery, not drugs and surgery.

American Psychiatric Association, . (2000). Substance Dependence.
Diagnostic and statistical manual for mental disorders, 4th edition, text revision. Retrieved (2009, November 11) from http://www.behavenet.com/capsules/disorders/subdep.htm
Katherine M.A., Ann, . (1996). Anatomy of a food addiction: the brain
chemistry of overeating. Carlsbad, CA: Gurze Books.
Lenoir , Magalie, Fuschia Serre, Lauriane Cantin, Serge H. Ahmed, . (2007).
Intense sweetness surpasses cocaine reward. PLoS ONE 2, 8(698), Retrieved November 7, 2009,from http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0000698
Tartaglia , Dennis, . (2001, January 31). Scientists find link between
dopamine and obesity. Retrieved November 7, 2009, from http://news.bio-medicine.org/medicine-news-2/Scientists-find-link-between-dopamine-and-obesity-9423-1/
Walsh, Karen McNulty, . (2007, October 25). Food restriction increases
dopamine receptor levels in obese rats. Retrieved November 7, 2009,from http://www.bnl.gov/bnlweb/pubaf/pr/PR_display.asp?prID=07-97
Wang , Gene-Jack, Nora D Volkow, Jean Logan, Naomi R Pappas,
Christopher T Wong, Wei Zhu, Noelwah Netusil, Joanna S Fowler, . (2001). Brain dopamine and obesity. The Lancet, (9253, pages 354-357), Retrieved November 7, 2009,from http://foodaddictionsummit.org/docs/11Noble.pdf