The global obesity epidemic has spurred further research into what compels people to overeat, finding that unhealthy relationships with food bear some striking similarities to drug addiction. Understanding the parallels offers interesting insights into treatment.
Overeating is a globally recognised public health issue, with serious health effects. Popular marketing slogans sum up the nature of our relationship with processed and high-sugar food. “Bet you can’t eat just one!” is the popular boast of Lays Potato Chips, while Sprite commands buyers to “Obey Your Thirst.” As the American burger chain White Castle notes in its slogan, “The crave is a powerful thing.” Most people recognise the lure of a favorite food, especially one that isn’t healthy. But can this drive to eat be classified as an addiction?
Researchers are still studying the nuances of unhealthy food relationships, but some have noted interesting similarities between food addiction and substance addiction. Here are six ways in which food addiction mirrors other types of addiction disorders.
Similarity 1: The Dopamine Link
Have you ever suddenly reached the bottom of a bag of chips, only to wonder how you ate the whole thing when you weren’t even that hungry? Or intended to eat just one donut and somehow ended up wolfing down six of them? Studies have shown that foods with high levels of fats, carbohydrates and sugar like candy, sodas and fried foods, stimulate dopamine production in the brain, a feel-good neurotransmitter that has long been linked to other types of addictions.
Dopamine is a key part of the brain’s reward centre, which creates memories and drives motivation to engage in activities that make us feel good. In the short term, this can feed into overeating.
Over a longer period of time, however, an addiction can rewire this part of the brain that produces dopamine, due to regular overstimulation which causes the brain to respond by lowering levels of dopamine production and receptors. This pushes users to seek more and more of what they are addicted to in an attempt to achieve the same effects, and could be what is behind disorders like binge-eating, though research on this is still being conducted.
Similarity 2: Cravings
Most of us have experienced the powerful urge to indulge in a favourite treat or snack. Inspired by hunger, memory, or sight, the desire to dive into a plate of fries or a bowl of ice cream can be almost overwhelming. In a study conducted by Yale University, researchers found that for participants with addictive eating habits, simply looking at a milkshake activated the same reward and pleasure centres in the brain that cocaine use does. For some, cravings may be particularly strong in times of trouble, resulting in “stress-eating” or a need for unhealthy “comfort foods.” When the cravings are frequent and irresistible, this can signal a problematic relationship with food, and mirrors a key symptom of a substance abuse disorder.
Similarity 3: Knowing it’s Bad for You, But Being Unable to Stop
There’s a wealth of information available on all the ways in which highly-processed foods, sugar and fats can wreak havoc on our bodies. In some cases, we may be seeing the effects of overeating already in the form of weight gain, symptoms of prediabetes, high cholesterol, and even heart issues. But despite witnessing the results of these foods on our health, we continue to reach for another piece of pizza or a midnight bag of crisps. People who have problematic eating habits usually have tried to change their habits, but have found themselves falling back into the same patterns.
This behaviour mimics that of people with substance dependency. Those living with addiction are often compelled to continue using despite recognising the ill-effects and even trying to quit. This is because the reward centre of the brain has been essentially hijacked by the addiction, which results in the need for additional support to help ensure a successful and lasting recovery.
Similarity 4: Feelings of Guilt and Shame
While consuming unhealthy food may feel satisfying and relieve stress in the moment, people who have addictive eating habits might experience negative emotions later on, such as feeling shame around the effects on their bodies, or guilt about how much or what they have eaten. This is similar to people struggling with substance addiction, and often results in people trying to conceal their eating habits, including by isolating themselves or through denial.
Similarity 5: Withdrawal
Have you noticed that when you try to give up certain food or beverages, you experience some unpleasant side effects? Maybe a day without coffee or caffeinated beverages leaves you with a pounding headache, or going without sugar spurs irritability and tiredness. Registered dietitian and co-author of the book The Sugar Detox: Lose the Sugar, Lose the Weight – Look and Feel Great, Brooke Alpert explains, “Depending on how intense your addiction is, you can experience withdrawal symptoms, such as brain fog, crankiness and fatigue.” Though these symptoms are milder than those experienced by people detoxing from a substance addiction, they are indicative of a type of dependency.
Similarity 6: The Presence of Co-Occurring Disorders
Unhealthy eating habits often occur alongside other mental health or addiction disorders. One study by York University in Toronto found that many with compulsive eating disorders also were living with other mental health conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or depression. This is very similar to substance addiction, with some estimates showing that around half of those who abuse drugs or alcohol also are struggling with a mental health condition.
So is Food Addiction an Addiction?
While there are many similarities between substance addiction and compulsive eating habits, studies are still divided on whether a food addiction is an actual addiction. Some key differences lie in the severity of withdrawal symptoms (which are relatively mild for food-related issues), as well as the greater impacts that substances have on neurochemistry.
Whether or not people with addictive eating habits are classified as having an addiction, many agree that professional treatment is helpful in creating lasting change for problematic eating. Cognitive-behavioural therapy can be useful in examining problematic patterns of thoughts or behaviour, identifying the root causes of those patterns, and then developing and practicing healthy alternatives.
Support groups can also be helpful in connecting with a community who is understanding and can share experiences and advice on how to adapt addictive eating habits. Most unhealthy eating habits don’t simply go away on their own, so a conscious shift towards better food choices is necessary in avoiding the serious health impacts of overeating.
Building a Healthy Relationship with Food at The Dawn Rehab
The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab Thailand has been created to foster an environment of personal growth and healing for people who want to change their lives and overcome addiction or mental health issues.
Internationally accredited by the American Accreditation Commission International, The Dawn offers tailormade treatment plans that cater to each individual’s needs by using a comprehensive, holistic treatment method and modern techniques with proven results.
Food Addiction Treatment in Thailand
At The Dawn we have designed our own treatment model, known as the Twin Pillars. It combines the most effective psychotherapies currently in use with a range of scientifically-proven wellness practises to achieve holistic healing. Our highly-experienced team of addiction and mental health professionals work to ensure that each client receives the ideal balance between rehabilitation, wellness, relaxation and therapeutic engagement.
Our centre is conveniently located just outside the beautiful city of Chiang Mai, Thailand, a one-hour flight from the country’s capital of Bangkok. At our tranquil riverfront property you are completely removed from your triggers, the people, places and things that contribute to your condition, and immersed in a safe and soothing environment.
Call The Dawn today to learn more about how we can help transform your relationship with food, and live a healthier life.