With over two-thirds of adults in the United States being either overweight or obese, it’s clear that something has gone awry in our relationship with food.
A lot of societal factors are at play, including our spending more time at the computer, being more sedentary in general, and increased concerns over economic insecurity contributing to emotional eating. It’s no secret that food can be a source of pleasure and temporary escape from problems. After all, unlike people, food is pretty predictable and doesn’t talk back to us… not verbally, at least.
In addition, more and more outrageous culinary concoctions are being created. Food is big business. The food industry knows how to intrigue us with tantalizing pictures and odors of delectable and sometimes alarming dishes, in essence challenging us to eat them. For instance, the Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas lists a “quadruple bypass burger” on its menu that weighs in at over 8000 calories, which is roughly four times the recommended daily caloric consumption for an average woman. What on earth? The Cheesecake Factory offers an aptly termed “blackout cake”, and even Starbucks carries a wide assortment of muffins and pastries that are practically the size of one’s head.
So, it’s easy to see how we can fall into unhealthy eating habits, and habits can be difficult to break.
But is something more insidious involved? Is it possible to actually become physically addicted to food?
According to recent research studies, the answer appears to be yes.
In one study, rats given access to sugar for several hours a day developed tolerance, which is one hallmark symptom of dependence. The rats ate increasing amounts of sugar each day, and when the sugar was removed the rats went through withdrawal, with shaking and anxiety. In addition, the rats’ brains changed, with reductions in receptors for dopamine and opioids, which are natural “feel-good” chemicals produced by the body.
In addition, brain scans have shown that like people addicted to alcohol or drugs, obese individuals have a decreased amount of dopamine receptors. The theory is that without the usual amount of such receptors, individuals will feel the need to use more and more of their substance of choice, including food, to feel satisfied. It also appears that continuing to overeat reduces the dopamine response further.
Apparently calorie-dense foods, such as those high in sugar and fat, are particularly alluring due to evolutionary reasons. Back in the days when humans were running around in the wild and meals weren’t that easy to come by, foods that packed a punch calorically speaking were necessary to survival. Our physiology hasn’t changed all that much.
So, what to do? Unlike alcohol and drugs, which can be eliminated entirely, we do have to eat — we can’t “quit” food. The answers aren’t simple, but it may help to recognize that frequent indulgence in sugar and fat can in fact increase our cravings for these substances, in a way that may become more and more difficult to resist. If you find that you’re falling, or have already fallen, into some unhealthy eating patterns, you might want to consider nipping this in the bud. While it will be a challenge to learn new behaviors around food, and it may involve dealing with some uncomfortable feelings, your brain and body will thank you.