Can One Be “Addicted” to Food?
Addiction is hard to define.
Does it merely refer to any uninhibited behavior that is habitually repeated? This definition feels too loose – I wouldn’t say I was addicted to tying my shoes or going to the bathroom.
Does addiction refer to a habitually repeated behavior that is carried out despite its negative consequences? Again, I would argue that biting my nails or cracking my knuckles is not, technically, an addiction (the colloquial hyperbole in stating that one is “addicted” to biting their nails, or another such potentially unhealthy habit, seems to prove the point). These behaviors seem to lie under the bigger umbrella of “habits.”
So are addictions just particularly nasty habits?
“Physically addictive” is a popular buzz phrase in the modern jargon. Marijuana legalization activists use the term to highlight the drug’s innocuousness, and nicotine is often cited for its extreme “physically-addictive” properties. The phrase implies a biological definition of addiction – addiction is a chemical occurrence in the brain.
But isn’t all behavior a chemical occurrence in the brain? What differentiates my compulsive intake of coffee and my compulsive knuckle-cracking? Both behaviors are products of chemical transfers in my brain and body, both result in some kind of reward, and I perform both behaviors too often for my own good. Why am I “addicted” to coffee, but simply have the “bad habit” of knuckle-cracking?
Let’s ditch these questions for a minute, and look at a behavior that is widely agreed to be a “proper” addiction – repetitive cocaine use. Cocaine causes euphoria by blocking dopamine reuptake in cells, flooding your brain with an excess of pleasurable neurochemicals. In the short-term, this causes excessive partying, in the long term, it rewires your brain’s response to the reward of the drug and incites further (and heavier) use. The common signs of full blown addiction are increased tolerance, amplified motivation to use, bingeing, and withdrawal.
Additionally, one of the common signatures of addiction is continuing the addictive behavior in light of palpable negative consequences. This is clear with cocaine addicts, who continue to heavily use the drug even with their heart failing, body withering, and bank account dwindling.
Alcohol, nicotine, and heroin are also truly “addictive” substances, and have similar addictive characteristics.
But what about junk food? Recent research suggests that the brain reacts similarly to both the intake of high-calorie foods and the use of addictive substances (i.e. cocaine). Our society may not be snorting pixie sticks or main-lining Pepsi, but the analogies are staggering.
It’s no question that the intake of dense, fatty foods causes increased motivation to use – just give someone a bowl of potato chips and see if they can eat only one. Bingeing is another obvious correlate, with entire pints of ice cream as the most common victims. Withdrawal behaviors, that is, depression and anxiety, were observed when experimental rat subjects were deprived of sugar after a prolonged binge. In a recent paper in Nature Neuroscience, increased tolerance was observed in rats who were exposed to a high-fat diet, and rats exposed to high-fat foods (bacon and cheesecake, as supposed to their normal gruel) showed changes in their brain’s dopamine system that were comparable with cocaine-addicted rats.
The rats were getting high on cheesecake.
This same paper also showed that rats who were habituated to eating high-fat foods would continue eating them even if they were electrically shocked afterwards.
On the comparison to drug addiction, the authors write:
Given all of this, how far shall we go in drawing parallels between drug addiction and food addiction? Unlike drugs, food is essential for survival, but frequent consumption of bacon, sausage and cheesecake is not. The availability of such foods in most developed societies has increased so quickly that, similar to addictive drugs, they may stimulate brain reward systems more powerfully than we have evolved to handle, signaling a false fitness benefit and thereby reinforcing unhealthy patterns of consumption. In that respect, a parallel is defensible (Epstein & Shaham, 2010).
Food addiction can be connected to our ever ballooning waist lines as well. Food addiction can not be cited as the only cause of obesity, though it probably plays a role – while there are cases where obesity is a result of genes or the limited availability of leaner foods, addiction to junk food can surely lead to serious weight gain, especially in the obese, drive-thru West.
Mill once said something about “personal experience” bringing truths home. To me, no personal experience better supports the “junk food addiction theory” than childhood candy obsessions. And, in my first post after a month, I’ll leave you with a YouTube video instead of a haughty painting.