Understanding the Science of Food Addiction

Categories: Food Addiction Science

The Science of Food Addiction

science of food addictionWhat makes us crave particular types of food again and again? Why do many of us struggle with cravings, and then, later, a cycle of restriction and then bingeing? Believe it or not, there is a definite science behind this cycle that can be traced through medical studies and research. This article will discuss the science of food addiction, as illustrated through medical studies, which will follow the cycle of a food addict from bad diet, to restriction, then bingeing.

After introduction of each of the medical findings, we will interpret what this may mean for humans experiencing food addiction. We will also discuss the different steps that studies have found to be effective in helping those suffering from food addiction, and what you can do if you suspect you may be a food addict:


Eating a Diet with High Levels of Sucrose

Medical studies, such as those conducted by Dr. Nicole Avena and colleagues show the effects that a high sucrose or sugary diet has on mice in a lab environment. A diet high in intermittent, excessive sugar results in opioid dependence in lab mice. It may also result in the opiate-like effects on gene expression in areas of the rat brain that signal reward centers. IN a recent interview on CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” program, Dr. Robert Lustig informed viewers that his research had found that sugar was as addictive as cocaine because of its effects.

Other foods may also release chemicals that make us “feel good,” such as endorphins, and serotonin. All these neurotransmitters have positive effects on overall feeling, and are often produced naturally after the intake of high-glycemic foods. Over a long period, eating lots of addictive foods, such as sugary substances can result in higher body weight, body fat, triglycerides, and even obesity in lab animals.


Interpreting the Evidence

We can interpret these findings as meaning that those who eat lots of sugar-rich foods in their diets will be at an increased risk of dependence on the substances because of the fact it activates reward areas in the brain and releases chemicals the ease stress, pain, worry, and withdrawal symptoms. This means that when we are stressed, feel bad, or are even experiencing pain, sugary food can help us cope because of the release of dopamine in the brain that is triggered. This can also help to start a cycle, however, in which addicts turn to sugary foods again and again over long periods of time for such relief. And, also, that over a long period of time in humans, eating such a diet can mean patients will gain weight, and may be at risk to develop obesity, which can lead to other health risks. The chain must effectively be broken in order to lose weight and begin living a healthy life again. Most people will immediately take this to mean that they should completely stop eating sugary or addictive foods. However, studies find a different result in these cases.


Chance for Bingeing and Relapse

When cutting out sugar completely from rats or mice that have regularly had access to sugary foods, researchers have found that those who are completely deprived of sugar exhibit the sugar deprivation effect. These lab animals tend to show even greater response toward sugar after quitting cold turkey. This increased response may mean that lab animals are more at risk for bingeing if they are provided sugar-rich substances in the lab, again.

We can take such evidence to mean that the same results will happen in humans. That is to say, after quitting sugar completely and removing it from the diet, even a small amount of sugar can again stimulate the reward centers in the brain and have opiate like effects. This new higher-level of stimulation can result in bingeing.


Bingeing Effects in Lab Animals

The act of bingeing in lab animals has shown to only increase the dangers associated with sugar addiction. This includes higher dopamine levels, and increased anxiety. Because this cycle is obviously feeding on itself, the act of bingeing in lab rats only does more to harm than to help, especially after a period of abstinence from sugary substances.

Just like, in humans, those who have tried to quit sugar, then quit again and begin bingeing because of the enhanced effects may find they become more nervous, overly-stimulated, or seem “edgy”. These characteristics are the same that many may observe in those who are addicted to serious drugs during withdrawal.


Bingeing Leads to More Cravings

Playing this game is a dangerous one, as long-term effects of bingeing cause just as much damage, if not more so, than a sugar-rich diet. The awful things that may occur as a result include weight-gain, bad complexion, bad overall health, or other very bad side effects. Such side effects make it difficult to stop this reduction and bingeing cycle in both lab animals and humans.

Just like those who are addicted to other drugs, food addicts may have cravings triggered by memories, sight, or smell. The quickest and easiest way for most people to effectively stop these cravings is simply by indulging them. But such behavior only feeds the overall addiction, causes relapse, or ineffectively negates any position change that has been worked toward. Even though the odds in overcoming food addiction may seem overwhelming, there is hope.


Other Effects of Food Addiction

Being addicted to foods such as sugar may actually serve as a dangerous “gateway drug”. This is because dependence on sugar, as found by author Kathleen DesMaisons, can follow the same track as other types of drug abuse.

Researchers at Princeton in 2002 found that by activating beta endorphin receptors in the brain, sugar acts much like heroin and morphine. Not only that, but drug-addicted lab animals that were given sugar were found to readily begin abusing the substance, and mice who were already dependent upon sugar were found to react in more profound ways to drugs, such as morphine, when administered.


Research for Help

Other research suggests that there is a way to reduce cravings for sugar and its opiate-like effects in lab animals. When quitting a sugar-rich diet, or cutting back, lab rats that were administered a high-fat diet do not show the same withdrawal effects associated with sugar or opiate withdrawal.

This is important to remember when you try to break your food addiction, as just cutting back on sugar, and replacing sugar with some high-fat foods at times may be beneficial as you try to overcome the cycle. These high-fat foods may help humans by having the same effects in their brains as those listed below that were exhibited by lab animals who were given high-fat foods.


High-Fat Meals and Benefits

A high-fat meal, in lab animals, was shown to help increase dopamine levels and release in the body, much like sugar often does. However, unlike sugar, such a diet is not habit forming. By utilizing this information, humans can cut-back on their sugary diets, substitute some high-fat foods to curb withdrawals of sugar, and then slowly begin to cut-out the high-fat foods as time passes. This will help you to ease withdrawals, and eventually overcome the awful addiction that sugar can be in a food addicts’ life.


Things to Remember

An addiction to food may not just be fed by sugar, processed foods, or the relapse cycle. There are other factors that have been found to play a role in food addiction. Among them are genetics, diabetes (metabolic disturbances), leptin resistance and thyroid disease (hormonal imbalances), candida, constipation, and irritable bowel syndrome (compromised digestion).


Other Factors

Other factors may be that of a family history of different types of substance abuse, a toxic food environment where fresh, healthy foods are not readily available, food allergies, imbalance of neurotransmitters, and just emotional stress.

Different people my become food addicts for only one, or a combination of many of the above reasons. These factors also may show that you have a food addiction after careful review of your diet and habits, along with one or more of the factors listed above.


Reaching Out for Help

If you feel that you may be a food addict, or are experiencing sugar addiction, not only can you use the above information to help, but there are also many different types of diets you can try. By eating a diet that omits sugar, white flour, grains, and other processed foods, and replacing such foods with high-fat nuts, beans, whole grains, and supplements that can help addicts, many have successfully stopped their food addiction.

There are also organized support groups that have been found to help addicts break the chain through therapy, group sessions, counseling, support systems, and more. If you think you need help in your struggle with food addiction, talk to your doctor today. They can give you tactics for analyzing your diet to see if you have a food addiction, recommend programs, and help identify triggers and healthy food you can eat, instead.


Doriet von Fircks

About the author

Doriet von Fircks is a health practitioner and a nutrition expert.
She specializes in food related problems, such as food addiction.
After reading many articles about food addiction, especially lots of scientific journals, she realized that there was hardly any discussion about food addiction from a scientific perspective.
She updates the site frequently, ensuring that the latest scientific findings are always featured on FoodAddictionScience.com. If you have questions about this site or suggestions for improvement, please feel free to contact her.