Can we get addicted to food like we can other substances?
The news: eating disorders are making it into the newest version of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the diagnosis code book for mental health professionals. But studying food addictions is a challenge, as food is the only biological necessity among any other substances or behaviors typically considered addictive.
Addiction is the continued or compulsive use of a substance, despite negative and/or harmful consequences. The definition of addiction has expanded to include behaviors like gambling, internet use, and sex. But the typical conditions of abnormal dependence upon a substance—tolerance and withdrawal—just don’t apply to food as a whole. You have to eat food. While a person can remove certain foods from his or her diet, he or she cannot simply remove food from his or her life.
At the same time, research has long found similarities between food intake and addiction. And who among us hasn’t craved chocolate, or pizza, or a soda?
If Food is Addictive …
Neuroimaging work has revealed that the same regions of the brain process the reinforcing effects of food and the consumption of drugs (that are abused). While food addiction is less powerful than addictive drugs, this does not diminish the compulsive nature or lack of control associated with binge eating. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter critically involved in pleasure and reward, also plays a part in food addiction. We discussed the concept of treating sugar like other controlled substances here.
If Food Isn’t Addictive …
The overlap of the neural circuits in the brain isn’t direct proof that food is addictive.
Some researchers argue food addiction’s links to drug addiction are overstated. Imposing the addictive structure on food when it’s psychologically or biologically different could be problematic for identification and treatment.
The verdict is still out, but all the research is discussed in the “Food Addiction?” issue of Biological Psychiatry, Volume 73, Number 9 (May 1, 2013), published by Elsevier.