It used to be that addicts were thought to merely be selfish, self-serving individuals who were weak of character and will, overindulging in life’s pleasures. As a result, the most well-known addictions—to alcohol and drugs—were largely criminalized, resulting in many addicts receiving punitive treatments such as jail time rather than being encouraged to recovery. Moreover, it’s been suggested that addicts are most successful in recovery when they choose to rehabilitate willingly rather than being forced into abstinence and sobriety, though it remains that abstinence—whether imposed or voluntary—is always better than substance abuse.
Nowadays, we tend to see addicts in a more enlightened and informed light. Research has led us to the belief that addiction is actually a disease that’s not unlike diabetes or heart disease; individuals can be born without it, but once the disease of addiction develops it cannot be cured, only treated. Additionally, we’ve come to realize that in addition to mind-altering substances, there are a variety of behaviors that are addictive as well, such as gambling, exercise, and sex. With dependency lurking seemingly in every corner, we can at least take comfort in the fact that there are many avenues of recovery available to those who develop the disease of addiction.
Food Addiction: Different Drug, Same Disease
There have been numerous studies conducted over the years with the intent of either proving or disproving the reality of food addiction. The lack of historical authenticity of results led many to view food addiction as merely a lack of self-control. However, more recent studies have found that food, much like sex or heroin, can be highly addictive as well. Studies conducted on both animals as well as humans have found that in some, the same pleasure and rewards centers of the brain that are activated by sex, alcohol, and drugs can be activated by food, especially highly palatable foods that are often very high in sugar, fat, salt, or other food contents that should only be consumed in moderation.
When individuals suffer from food addiction, the body reacts to the consumption of food in much the same way as an individual who consumes alcohol or heroin. Upon consumption of the food item, the individual experiences a spike in the production of dopamine and other neurochemicals in the brain. With excess dopamine and other feel-good chemicals in the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, the individual quickly begins to associate the consumption of food with pleasure, which also serves as a means of reinforcement for that behavior.
In short, since eating food created feelings of pleasure, individuals who suffer from food addiction will begin to crave foods and the pleasure they experience when they eat. In terms of dependency, the mechanisms of food addiction are virtually the same as in addiction to alcohol, heroin, opiate painkillers, cocaine, and other harmful drugs; however, whereas in the case of substance abuse it’s the dangerous drugs that cause spikes in neurochemical production, food addiction is more physiological in nature as the foods themselves don’t alter one’s brain chemistry, but rather individual associates pleasure with eating, eating more in order to experience more pleasure.
Food Craving, Tolerance & Withdrawal
In the case of addiction to alcohol or drugs, an individual experiences a direct change in body chemistry as a result of ingestion of a particular substance. These effects, especially those that are pleasurable or euphoric, are why individuals continue to ingest the substance with increasing frequency over time, causing the body to become physically dependent on continued consumption in order to maintain basic bodily functions. However, despite food not being a dangerous narcotic drug an addiction to food can unfold in much the same way as any other addiction. ]
Similarly, when an individual begins to associate pleasure with eating he or she will begin experiencing cravings. Most individuals have experienced—at one time or another—a craving for a particular food; however, a craving experienced by an individual who is suffering from addiction is much different and much more powerful. In fact, studies have found that food addicts will often experience cravings for foods that they don’t like.
An addict’s cravings consume his or her every thought, making it all but impossible to resist the object of their obsession. In the case of a food addict, the craving is either to eat in general or to eat something specific, making it difficult to concentrate or resist the compulsion. It’s been found that addicts tend to experience less enjoyment by indulging in their addictive behaviors than individuals who are not addicted; in other words, like a sex addict experiences less enjoyment from sex than a non-addict, someone who is addicted to food will begin to get less enjoyment from eating food.
This occurs due to the building of a tolerance to the substance or behavior, resulting in the individual needing to indulge in the addictive substance or behavior with increasing frequency and in higher amounts in order to experience the desired level of pleasure. In terms of food addiction, this means that food addicts will have to eat larger portions more frequently in order to achieve the desired pleasure, which can lead to overeating and a number of other potential eating disorders. Moreover, food addicts will experience withdrawal much like an individual addicted to alcohol or drugs; deprived of the dopamine and serotonin that they would receive from eating food, these individuals feel depressed, anxious, angry, and they often have trouble focusing, sleeping, and sitting still.
Treating an Addiction to Food and Eating
Like most other impulse control disorders, food addiction is a serious condition, but one that can effectively be treated by participating in a comprehensive addiction treatment program. The optimal treatment curriculum for food addiction includes the essential counseling and psychotherapy, which will help to identify what psychological factors contributed to the development of a food dependency and to help the food addict overcome those altered patterns of thought and behavior. Additionally, individuals will learn a variety of life skills that will help them to maintain healthy eating habits, including nutrition and physical education.
If you or someone you love if suffering from addiction to food or a chemical substance, let Drug Treatment Center Finder pave the way to a healthier, productive self. We have a team of experienced recovery specialists available to help match individuals with the treatment programs they need to regain their independence and find long-term success in recovery. Don’t wait—call today!