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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.

Liking and Wanting

In 2002, Volkow published a study that investigated the link between dopamine and “wanting.” When people were presented with—but not allowed to eat—warm, tasty plates of their favorite food, dopamine increased in the striatum area of their brains. The subjects said they were hungry and desired the food. This is the “wanting,” or craving; it is not the pleasure (i.e., “liking”) they likely would have experienced if they had been allowed to consume it. The people’s responses in this study were quite similar to the experiences of drug abusers watching a video showing people using cocaine: the abusers experience a dopamine surge through the parts of the brain involved in habit.

In other words, really liking chocolate or potato chips, the pleasure that occurs when your reward systems fire, isn’t the whole story of dopamine and addiction. An intense want—the desire to eat, to do everything you can to get your hands on a food and put it into your mouth—is equally important. You taste creamy milk chocolate or a salty French fry. You really, really like it. So much so that you’re conditioned to the setting in which you ate the yummy food and the next time you’re in that environment, a shot of dopamine squirts into your brain and you want that food. You crave it. You’re motivated to eat it—and to keep eating it.

This idea is central to the obesity epidemic. “There is a certain reinforcement, almost like an arousal of wanting more,” says Volkow. “A person eats a gallon of ice cream. He is not even realizing the taste of the food anymore, he’s not enjoying the pleasure of the palatability and experience; it has become automatic. The drive to have more and more [fueled by dopamine] is what maintains that behavior, independent at that point of the pleasurable response that you get.

“It’s almost like they become a robot.”

Next: You’ve Been Conditioned »



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