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Post No.: 0761addictive


Furrywisepuppy says:


Is food addiction a real addiction?


Whether food can be truly addictive in the same way that a drug can be addictive is disputed. Akin to recreational drugs such as cocaine, certain foods can give us what’s like a temporary high. Sugar does stimulate the brain’s reward system in a similar way that substances like alcohol, cocaine and heroin do. Yet it’s also clear that the latter kinds of substances are far more powerful in getting people addicted. And compared to a substance abuse addiction, it’s difficult to define the diagnostic criteria for food addiction because everybody needs to eat food, unlike smoking tobacco or drinking alcohol. We all have a dependency on food! There are many different kinds of ingredients in all of the foods and drinks we consume too, unlike being able to identify nicotine or ethanol. We seek combinations of flavours, not pure substances. And there’s currently insufficient evidence to suggest that any food ingredient or particular combination is addictive exactly like certain drugs are addictive.


Nevertheless, for those who accept its existence, food addiction is similar to substance-based addictions in the way that sufferers experience the cravings, feel out of control, may fall into financial trouble for it, be extremely preoccupied with food, and then there’s the secrecy of the affliction and the shame. So it produces much of the same psychological symptoms and some of the same physiological symptoms.


But will this therefore pass blame from the consumer to the food? Should the adverse effects on a person’s life be sufficient alone for a diagnosis of an addiction? It activates the same brain reward centres as in substance-based cravings but there’s no clear change in brain chemistry as consistent with the effects of, for instance, alcohol or cocaine substance-based cravings. Also, unlike substance-based addictions, there’s usually no tolerance effect or withdrawal symptoms like extreme anxiety.


Yet gambling, sex, videogaming and shopping addictions are examples of behavioural addictions, even though they don’t involve substances – so maybe it’s more accurate and helpful to call ‘food addiction’ an ‘eating addiction’? Thus rather than focusing on foods as substances – we should focus on the person who exhibits these addictive behaviours. This doesn’t mean the problem is less of a problem or less real, but this change of perspective can help us to better help those who feel out of control with eating.


There are technical requirements for what drugs are, yet excessive sugar and fat consumption still causes harm. It’s like, imagine if ‘homicide’ just technically meant murders involving firearms – a murder that involved a regular kitchen knife, which most people use every day, would therefore not technically be called a homicide despite the harm it caused. So whether one can technically call sugar and/or fat chemically addictive or not shouldn’t really matter – the overwhelming compulsion for food is accepted as a serious health problem.


Therefore it’s pretty much a consensus now that eating can become behaviourally addictive for some. Those with an eating addiction, like those with BED (binge eating disorder), find a compulsion to consume, particularly high-fat and high-sugar foodstuffs that markedly activate the reward systems in their brains despite the adverse consequences.


But will this therefore pass blame from the food to the consumer? Well even if it might be regarded as a behavioural compulsion or a type of impulse control disorder, it won’t mean that junk food and drinks manufacturers aren’t still a part of the overeating problem too. They’re supplying much of the quick and easily accessible calorie-dense foods and drinks in the environment – for which if this supply were reduced, it would decrease obesity rates. Food innovation has surreptitiously manipulated the demand of certain foods by increasing their hidden sugar and/or fat contents. (Hence why ‘sugar levies’ or ‘fat taxes’ have been and are being explored in many countries today – read Post No.: 0703 for more.) Food innovation has also decreased food preparation times, thus swinging more consumers towards these ultra-processed and less healthy convenience foods.


Yet some contest that the desire for something like chocolate is mostly in the mind, created by clever marketing and our associations with the food item. They contend that if fruit were marketed in the same way then we would crave them too.


Regardless, it doesn’t mean that everybody who becomes obese is addicted to eating – the vast majority of people who become obese become so from consuming a little bit more than they should every day, which gradually adds up over time. This is unlike how other addictions manifest. Not all eating-addicted people become obese either. So there’s far more to the obesity crisis than pathological eating.


‘Addiction’ is very hard to define and we don’t use brain imaging to diagnose it – we take note of someone’s symptoms i.e. the chronic negative effect of something on their life. So if someone has a maladaptive relationship with food because they cannot get enough of it and it’s harming their health, then we can regard them as being behaviourally addicted to eating – just like some people can be behaviourally addicted to social media or sex.


Eating when not hungry and instead of engaging in other activities that one should be doing (e.g. work) form the basis of eating addiction. The desire to consume sugary and fatty ‘highly palatable’ food items despite not needing them for one’s daily physical energy and nutritional requirements could arguably point to something dysfunctional in the pleasure, reward and regulation systems in the brain? Or it could be just more simply the case of ancient human instincts operating in a modern environment of highly processed foods, and some people feel this instinct stronger than others?


Well those who find eating addictive do primarily tend to be addicted to certain types of foods i.e. high sweetness, fatty mouthfeel or crunchy and salty foods. The tolerance effect, as exhibited with cocaine or heroin addiction, may not show via a change in the brain chemistry of those who find eating addictive – but it does perhaps show when taste buds that aren’t used to high sweetness can gradually get used to high sweetness over time (e.g. someone who’s not used to consuming sugary cereals or sugar in their tea can find these things too sweet, and someone who’s used to these things can find it too bland without the added sugar). The same with saltiness. (A tip is to use fine salt as opposed to large flakes since the former tastes more intense because it’ll cover a larger surface area of your tongue for the same amount consumed. Another tip is to save the salt for the outside surfaces of foods rather than mixed within the middle because the outside surfaces are guaranteed to touch your tongue and thus taste receptors – although better is to chew your food thoroughly.)


Although strictly correct at one level, it’s evident that simply asserting that ‘overeating and/or the lack of enough physical activity is the cause of obesity’ is ineffective at reducing obesity – the more interesting questions are what causes overeating and what causes a lack of physical activity? The answers may include people’s age, gender, stress exposure, lifestyle, career, social expectations, other facets of the environment, genetics, and certain disease states or medications, amongst other factors. And one of these contributors for some could be an eating addiction fed by the increased availability of calorie-dense foods and drinks that are easily accessible to them in the modern world. That, along with the innate desire to conserve energy whenever possible, coupled with increasingly sedentary lifestyles due to modern technologies and culture.


Pain and pleasure are not mutually exclusive opposites i.e. we can feel both pleasure and pain simultaneously, or neither pleasure nor pain at all. Rats in laboratory experiments that are wired up to be able to electrically self-stimulate their brains’ reward centres can spend hours self-stimulating even whilst feeling extreme hunger or thirst, hence they endure pain just to access the pleasure, or whilst neglecting their other needs and responsibilities like caring for their fluffy pups. This behaviour appears to parallel some modern human activities that offer quick, instantaneous pleasures at the expense of well-being, like eating junk food, shopping or gambling addictions – or substance-based addictions where the substance abusers can feel both the pleasure of a high as well as the pain associated with being addicted to a substance they don’t really want to be addicted to.


Mammals, at least, evolved to feel pleasure when doing the things that aided the survival of their species, but this reward system can be exploited in ways that aren’t optimal for their health or in turn survival i.e. just because something is pleasurable, and therefore just because we want it, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good for us. The brain’s reward system isn’t just activated to ensure that we eat and procreate for the survival of the species but it can be hijacked by substance-based addictions or behavioural addictions.


People can become behaviourally addicted to exercise too. Some of these people may have masochistic personalities. Such people repeatedly push themselves to the point of literal exhaustion just to meet their self-imposed targets. They’re harsh on themselves and go to extremes to prove their worth. They may hold private resentments instead of doing anything directly about them, and may even refuse outside help. They may feel humiliated inside or unworthy of love yet they don’t want to show any vulnerability or how they really feel. Enduring pain without showing that it hurts is a source of fuzzy pride. It might stem from experiencing abuse when young.


Once something healthy in the right amount ventures towards too much then it is actually technically not healthy at all, hence the term ‘too healthy’ is a misnomer. In the short-term, an athlete (e.g. a long distance runner) may find that their performance actually improves as they train more and eat less because they’ve become thinner and lighter – but in the long-term they will suffer from more stress fractures, health and performance problems. The phrase ‘give it 110%’ is really meant to mean ‘those who were only giving it 90.9% before should now give it 100%’ because no one can logically give above 100%; at least without causing themselves injury, damage or failure.


Anyway, most studies suggest that a behavioural addiction to eating really exists, although it’s still disputed by some quarters – perhaps mainly by calorie-dense food and drinks manufacturers and their lobbyists! Taking a little bit of manageable risk is fine, and even encouraged, but taking too much risk too often is classed as a gambling addiction. Taking a little bit of sugar and fat is fine, and even healthy, yet taking too much sugar and fat too often is somehow conversely controversial as to whether it’s classed as a behavioural addiction or not. 20ºC is a temperature level that’s nice and comfortable, but a temperature level of 100ºC would be lethal! We therefore cannot say that ‘temperature’ is never harmful for us. A central heating system designer wouldn’t deliberately allow a room to ever go to 100ºC however. Yet food and drinks manufacturers often know their products are dense in calories – although some natural, unprocessed products are dense in calories too and it’s trickier to enforce a limit on the total amount of sugar and fat that people consume.


Woof. For me, regardless of whether eating can be classed as addictive or not – it’s clear that many people have a problem with eating too much (or too little) and it should be treated as a health problem all the same. We can be so hung up on the technicalities and neglect the practical problem in front of us. It’s like arguing that someone didn’t get hit by a truck but a van(!) Or it’s like disputing whether someone has been struck by venom or poison – the approach to treatment may be different but they still need medical attention.


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