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Food Can Be As Addictive as Drugs, Study Finds

To say that a food addiction is no different from a heroin addiction seems a little extreme. However, new research is showing just how similar all addictions are. Whether you can’t put down the doughnut, or you crave cocaine, there are things going on in your brain that are at the core of your addiction. Comparing drug and food addictions may seem suspect, with one having potentially much more serious consequences than the other, but it helps scientists and medical professionals to better understand the disease of addiction. We can no longer use the excuse that addicts are weak-willed or morally inferior. With research like the following, we know that addiction responses are highly intertwined with normal brain chemistry, and that this disease is much more complicated than a simple matter of will power.

The Study

Published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, investigators from Yale University looked at around 40 women, all in good health and without diagnosed eating disorders. The women ranged in size from thin to overweight to obese. The women were first asked to complete the Yale Food Addiction Scale, a tool that measures signs and symptoms of food addiction in individuals. It asks about things like worrying about food, eating too much and feeling sick, and overwhelming thoughts about food. The researchers also used magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, to scan the brains of the participants. The scans were taken while the women were looking at pictures of a chocolate milkshake and at images of a bland drink. More scans were taken while the women ate the shake and the boring, low-calorie beverage. The researchers then made comparisons between the women’s responses to the addiction scale and their brain images.

Addiction and the Brain

In looking at the scans of the participants’ brains, the researchers found that among the women who showed at least three signs of food addition, according to the Yale Food Addiction Scale, brain activity in the regions that are related to craving and pleasure was higher than in women who had one or no signs of food addiction. The parts of the brain showing activity while looking at pictures of the milkshake include the anterior cingulate cortex, the amygdala, and the medial orbitofrontal cortex. In similar studies with drug addicts, these same parts of the brain show activity when participants are shown drugs. The women in the study who showed signs of being food addicts, also showed similar brain activity to drug addicts when they actually got to eat the ice cream. While eating, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex had decreased activity in these women. This same happens with drug addicts while they are using and indicates lessened self-control.

Distinguishing Characteristics

While many of the similarities between food addicts and drug addicts were striking, there were also important differences highlighted by the Yale study. Unlike drug addicts, the food-addicted women did not lose the pleasurable sensation of viewing the shake, when they finally got to eat it. Their pleasure centers remained on high alert throughout. In contrast, drug addicts continue to crave drugs over time, but their pleasure in using decreases. This creates a tolerance, which leads to the cycle of using drugs over and over again trying to chase a high. It also leads to abusers using more and more of a substance to get a high and one of the great dangers that puts addicts at risk of overdosing. It seems that food addicts do not lose the sense of pleasure, but the researchers suggest that this might be a trait seen only in serious addicts. The women in the study were not severely addicted to food.

The Complexity of Addiction

The Yale study does not give all the answers to questions about addictions that many people term “behavioral.” These are things like compulsive gambling, sex addiction and overeating, which have long been given little respect when compared to drug addiction and alcoholism. More information about addiction, however, increases our understanding of how all of these behaviors work in our brains. The consequences may often be more noticeable and more severe when addiction is to a chemical substance, such as heroin, meth, or cocaine, but all addictions are serious and require treatment. With a better understanding of addiction and the brain, experts will become better able to help people heal.  

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