Are You Addicted to Food?

By Rachael Moeller Gorman, "Addicted to Food?," March/April 2011

Food can enslave the brain just like drugs can. Dr. Nora Volkow’s research may help you take back control.

You’ve Been Conditioned

No one would become a food-devouring robot, however, if they lived in a desert or on the moon or in the year 1850, according to David Kessler, M.D., former FDA commissioner and author of The End of Overeating (Rodale, 2009). We eat, he says, because we have constant, crippling access to rich, delicious foods packed with fat and sugars, both of which activate our dopamine systems. And those conditioned cues are everywhere—commercials, fast-food restaurants that we pass on our commutes, grocery stores. Kessler postulates that fat and sugar, plus salt, have triggered mass overconsumption in the United States.

“We took fat, sugar and salt and put it on every corner, made it available 24/7, made it socially acceptable to eat anytime. We’re living in a food carnival,” he says.

Volkow’s Bethesda offices are a perfect microcosm of this American food environment: Within one-third of a mile, a visitor can find a frozen yogurt place, a greasy-spoon diner, a Mexican restaurant and at least 10 other eateries. On the first floor of the NIDA offices is a cafeteria with a hot buffet and snacks. Vending machines, like the one Volkow has a hard time resisting, live on the office floors themselves. Bowls of candy lurk on desktops and in drawers. The scent of microwave popcorn pervades the office air.

The continual need to say “NO!” to these tempting foods requires the strongest will, and some people’s wiring seems to be working against them. In a 2008 study, Volkow found that having fewer dopamine receptors (as obese people do) was associated with less activity in parts of the brain responsible for self-control. In other words, these people not only have to eat more to achieve the same “reward,” they also have a harder time stopping themselves from eating once they start. Drug addicts similarly have fewer dopamine receptors, also associated with less activity in the self-control parts of the brain. In the brain of a compulsive, “addicted” eater, inhibition is like a picket fence trying to hold back an avalanche of reward and conditioning.

“Joanne,” 39, from San Francisco, a member of Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous, agrees, and says that sugar and flour are her drugs. Since she was a teenager, Joanne would compulsively eat for hours at a time; in high school she learned how to make herself sick, which “led to 15 years of insanity,” she says. “There was something in my brain that would light up, and it would turn into this massive craving that I could not control.”

Joanne’s food addiction manifested as bulimia, but others in the group became obese. When she wasn’t purging, she was “white-knuckling it” through the day. “If there was food somewhere in the vicinity, the constant conversation in my head was, ‘Should I eat that? No, don’t eat that.’ Back and forth, over and over, while trying to maintain a conversation, which was almost fruitless because I wasn’t really listening, I was focused on the food.” Studies have estimated that about 10 percent of the population is addicted to food like this, and many more of us probably fall elsewhere on the food-addiction spectrum.

“Everyone understands how critical taste is [to overeating], but what Nora has shown is the role not just of taste, but of the brain and brain circuits,” says Kessler. “We now know that the learning, memory, habit and motivational circuits of the brain are what drive eating, and Nora deserves a lot of credit for pulling back the curtain and showing us what’s really at the core of this [obesity] epidemic.”

Next: Breaking the Cycle »

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