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.

Every morning, Nora Volkow walks past a vending machine on her way to her office. She barely notices it. One day, however, she’s hungry, so she stops and peers in. A chocolate bar grabs her eye. She inserts her money, takes the chocolate, munches, and moves on. The next day, Volkow walks to her office as usual, but this time as she rounds the corner, she has a sudden, intense craving for chocolate. She hadn’t thought about it since her last bite the day before. She isn’t hungry. “But my brain responded in this automatic way,” she explains in her melodic Spanish accent as she sits in her office at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), where she serves as director. Because the chocolate had given her so much enjoyment, just the sight of the machine made her want to eat more.

Volkow, a lithe woman with short blonde curls, provides example after example of instances in which she has succumbed to the food’s lure. Chocolate-covered raisins. Godiva at a bookstore. Chocolate-chip cookies. The woman really, really likes chocolate.

But is she an addict? People talk about being “addicted to sugar,” “addicted to potato chips” and, probably most commonly, “addicted to chocolate.” Volkow has been attempting to figure out whether we truly can be addicted to food by peering into people’s minds with high-tech scanners. She has already shown that obese people’s brains look similar to the brains of those addicted to drugs. She’s finding that food, especially the highly palatable fatty, sugary kinds that pack the inner aisles of American supermarkets, fast-food joints and, yes, vending machines, can enslave anyone and change their behaviors.

The more she can understand how “rewarding” substances, like drugs and yummy foods, can activate parts of our brains associated with addiction, the more she can help us learn how to take back control of our actions—or never lose our free will in the first place.

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