When we think about addiction, generally what springs to mind is alcohol, drugs, or nicotine. Sometimes we might consider caffeine an addiction, and we may jokingly refer to the shoes in our closet or the number of golf clubs we purchase as an “addiction.” While the last two may be tongue-in-cheek, addiction is a serious physical problem that goes even beyond drugs, alcohol, or tobacco. These addictions can be life-threatening, but there is one addiction that can be just as serious: being addicted to food.

Can you be addicted to food? The research

Before you dismiss the idea that you could be addicted to food consider this: a new study from the University of Michigan has found that highly processed foods such as those that contain excessive amounts of sugar, fat, and white flour can actually trigger eating behavior that has the same characteristics as addictive consumption of drugs and alcohol.

In the same study, minimally processed foods such as brown rice and unprocessed foods like salmon did not trigger the same addictive response. Researchers hypothesize that some people may be more sensitive to the potential rewarding feelings processed foods deliver (think: sugar high).

Nicole Avena, assistant professor of pharmacology and systems therapeutics at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and a co-author on the study, indicated that this was just the beginning of the research but that there are clear implications when it comes to treatment for both obesity and those who are addicted to food:

“This is a first step towards identifying specific foods, and properties of foods, which can trigger this addictive response. This could help change the way we approach obesity treatment. It may not be a simple matter of ‘cutting back’ on certain foods, but rather, adopting methods used to curtail smoking, drinking and drug use.”

The University of Michigan Health System has also been studying the connection between the little voice in your head that tells you when you are full or that you shouldn’t eat that last piece of pizza and your stomach. Turns out that connection is real, strong, and may have a genetic component. Researchers have looked at the POMC neurons located in the hypothalamus. These neurons send signals of satiety or fullness, regulating appetite by sending signals out to the body.

In animals and people where these neurons are not functioning properly or are absent, both tend towards obesity. Researchers in the study published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and a recent paper in PLoS Genetics found that the same type of misfire occurred when certain genetic signals were not working.

Malcolm Low, M.D., Ph.D. of the University of Michigan Medical School and co-lead of the study recognizes that this research is in its infancy. His team was unable to provide a direct correlation between this malfunctioning genetic component and obesity or tendency towards addiction to food, but he believes that it is an important first step in recognizing causes and risk factors for obesity, saying:

“For humans, POMC regulation may be part of the equation of weight control. We don’t know, but we think it likely, that it may be similar to the mouse model, where its role is like a dial, with a linear relationship between the amount of POMC expression and the degree of obesity. This research opens up our overall understanding of how the brain works to regulate feeding.”

Other studies have indicated that those who are addicted to food are triggering the same neurobiological pathways that are triggered by drug addiction. Daily binging on processed foods, especially sugar, can trigger the brain’s reward system into releasing dopamine, the “feel good” hormone. This hormone, in essence “hijacks” that brain and convinces it to continue to indulge to maintain that good feeling.

While being addicted to food is a very real issue with research-based evidence of the neurological changes that occur, the term “addicted” can be somewhat controversial.

Those who suffer from addition to drugs, alcohol, and tobacco may feel that applying this term to food is minimizing the ravages of these other substances. Suffering from drug addiction, especially if the drugs are illegal, comes with a host of other issues, including potential legal implications and difficulty in maintaining everything from the addiction to stable employment.

This is further complicated by the fact that alcohol, drugs, and nicotine are not necessary for our survival, but everyone has to eat. Because of this, treatment for food addiction can be very complicated and challenging.

What to do if you’re addicted to food

The first thing to do when seeking treatment is to identify the problem. Some signs of being addicted to food are:

  • Cravings for certain types of food even after finishing a full meal
  • Eating much more than you intended to
  • Feelings of guilt after eating certain types of food but continuing to eat them again
  • Making excuses about why you are allowing yourself to eat foods that are not nourishing
  • Repeated unsuccessful attempts to quit eating certain foods
  • Hiding consumption of unhealthy foods
  • Lack of control when it comes to amount and types of food consumed, resulting in weight gain

These signs of food addiction need not all be present. It is also important to note that these are extreme versions of normal behaviors. For example, if you go on vacation and overindulge in dinners out, sweets, or fast food but are able to resume your regular healthy eating habits when you come home, you are probably not addicted to food.

Food addiction and chronic pain

Because of the types of food that can lead to addiction, food addiction can be especially difficult for pain patients.

Sugar, dairy, and wheat are known to be highly inflammatory, and eating these regularly in large amounts can only complicate a pain condition that is already complex enough.

Further, the types of food to which you can become easily addicted often cause weight gain that increases pressure and stress on all of the systems of the body, including the joints. For those with osteoarthritis in the knees and hips, this can increase pain levels.

If you feel you have signs of food addiction or are concerned, talk to your doctor or check in with Food Addicts Anonymous to get more information.

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