Can food become an addiction?

I was debating this with my friend this morning.

Her argument: Food can’t become and addiction because it’s necessary for survival. She said, “a car needs gas to run, it’s not addicted to the gas, so it’s not an addiciton. Food is fuel.”

My argument: I said that anything that is in supply to someone can become addicting for them. I said, “Food is thee worst substance that can be abused, because you don’t NEED drugs to survive, but you NEED food. Therefore, it’s THEE hardest thing to control in your intake. Imagine trying to cut down on smoking, but at the same time, you need a cigarette to be able to breath.”

Naturally we both see each other’s points of view, but how do you feel about this debate?

You can become “addicted” to an excess of food, maybe. But I’m kinda in your friend’s corner on this one.

Well, if you re-phrase it to “Eating can become an addiction”, then I guess most people would agree.

Many addictions aren’t physiological, but psychological - addiction to chocolate or similar.

Also, the comparison to a car is pretty bad. The car doesn’t decide how much gasoline it gets - whoever fills it does. And a car doesn’t decide to go for “healthy” or “unhealthy, but tastes nice” gasoline - but people who eat food do. (Does your girlfriend eat veggies or chips and chocolate? If the latter, why? Her body doesn’t need these things!).

Exactly what I said to her. I was like, “well the car isn’t alive and doesn’t techinically need that gas.” She still stuck to her guns about the car analogy. ha.

But hey, I’m hungover this morning and can’t think clearly right now. lol

Food can certainly become an addiction, in a more than merely psychological fashion. After all we are programmed to like food: it invokes our reward chemistry in the brain to eat. Anything that involves the reward chemistry can be psychiatrically addictive in certain people. This includes many other erstwhile “harmless” activities but since we are not hardwired to enjoy them they do not have as much psychiatrically-addictive potential.

I say psychiatrically addictive to distinguish between this and activities that will produce physical withdrawal symptoms – physical addiction, and also activities that you may enjoy too much to stop but do not affect the brains reward chemistry (although I’m not sure that these activities exist.)

Well the general rubric for addiction is the following:

Does the person doing the action dislike it, or want to stop?

Does s/he keep doing it anyway?

Does it interfere with his/her health, relationships or ability to keep a job/stay in school?

Obviously, overeating food* can be an addiction under this rubric. While I like eating at the moment I’m doing it (much as a heroin addict LOVES the heroin as it’s going into her vein), I wish I could stop. Yet I keep doing it anyway. My health is beginning to suffer, my relationships to other people are becoming affected (my sexual ones because I’m simply not that attractive anymore), and I can’t get a job in my field of training (massage therapy) because no one wants to hire a fat chick at a spa - they want thin, young healthy looking women, so it’s affecting my job.

But I can’t stop doing it. Every year or so I go up another dress size and hate myself for it.

I think the reason some people balk at labeling overeaters as “food addicts” is because of the disease model of addiction that’s so common in this country. We don’t want to give fat people the “excuse” of having an addiction, we want them to think they’re bad and stupid and lazy and they could fix themselves if they just tried harder. Which is the same exact thing my grandparents thought of alcoholics and drug addicts.

I don’t think recognizing something as an addiction gives one an excuse to continue, but it could give us better options for treatment.

*Which I personally define as eating more calories than your activity level burns off.

I think constanze hit the nail on the head with this one. Obviously food, as a necessary survival item, won’t cause “withdrawal” if you stop eating it (that’s just called starvation). But psychologically, food can be as comforting a release as any drug.

Maybe someone who has a better background in this sort of thing can chime in here, but I have read that eating a favorite food will trigger a release of endorphins in the brain in a similar (but far less intense) way that an opiate might. This might help fuel the need for “comfrot foods” if there’s any truth to it. Google Scholar is not proving helpful finding good data, though, so don’t hold me to it.

Either way, psychological addiction requires willpower to break. Will is the key.

Maybe the person is confusing “addiction” with “obsession.” A person can become obsessed with eating, but I wouldn’t use the term “addiction” to describe that scenario. Just my take.

WAG: it may depend on what food, and its biochemical makeup. Chocolate, with its elevated levels of caffeine, certainly can become an addiction. Bread, on the other hand… I’m not so sure if there’s any addictive components (unless it’s a poppy seed bagel).

IANApsychologist, and different people’s brains are freaky weird stuff.

Not sure if addiction is the word but I bought some beef stick product that I simply could not stop eating. It obviously contained a ridiculous amount of fat so I refuse to buy it. I’m serious when I say I had no self-control with it.

Google “sugar addiction” (use the quote) and you’ll get a boat load of hits. If you are patient, you will find that there are some articles that are finding that sugar can be addictive just like some drugs. Wiki does an OK job as a starting point.

We’ll are dependent on food. The observation that it’s for survival does not repudiate that relation, but just seeks to sanctify it. I’ve seen attempts to deny addiction by focusing on specific food items and the rarity of such dependence , but that misses the point. That’s akin to being addicted to Guinness, not alcohol. The basic physiological dependence is satisfied by the core essentials in food: proteins, carbs, fat…etc. Just like alcohol is distributed (by definition) in all alcoholic beverages, so is the dependence-liable elements of food(“Material, usually of plant or animal origin, that contains or consists of essential body nutrients, such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, or minerals, and is ingested and assimilated by an organism to produce energy, stimulate growth, and maintain life.”).

This is an extremely complicated question since there are a number of different circuits in the brain that regulate eating and appetite, and there are differences depending upon whether you’re talking about good-tasting food vs. unpalatable food in how the brain reacts.

In some ways eating is probably a much more difficult behavior to control than an addiction, because the body regulates fat mass homeostatically, and will try to compel you to eat if you fall below a certain level. This is more or less the same thing that happens if you become dehydrated (and feel compelled to drink) or the CO2 levels in your brain rise (and you feel compelled to breathe). Here’s a brief introduction (pdf) to a couple of the mechanisms involved.

So some people who describe themselves as “food addicts” may in fact just be dieters who have unwittingly triggered this mechanism and therefore find it hard or impossible to control their eating. Unlike an addiction this compulsion won’t necessarily wane over time. And it’s not the same as starvation, per se, in that you don’t actually have to be short of fuel to trigger this effect, and it happens in people who are still fat. I think most researchers think this process is the main reason why obese people are on the whole so overwhelmingly unsuccessful at becoming normal weight permanently.

On the other hand there are other aspects of eating that overlap with the reward circuitry in the brain that is hijacked in addictions, and there is evidence that some obese people have abnormalities in dopamine receptors like addicts. This may be more related to their reaction to tasty foods. And it might provide an explanation why someone who is at or above their set point might still feel compelled to eat, or might even gain weight.

Very good post. Thank you !