What is Food Addiction?

“I’m addicted to watching football!”

“I’m addicted to shopping!”

These (and other) pleasure-inducing past-times are sometimes referred to as “addictions” in the sense that they bring joy and excitement to our life, and are things we participate in repeatedly. However, there’s a difference between an activity being pleasurable versus addictive. This difference lies in the brain’s reaction to the activity.

This is Your Brain on Drugs…and Sugar

In simplified terms, different parts of our brains work together to sense stimuli, control our actions, and tell us when we need something. They communicate via messengers called neurotransmitters. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released in response to pleasurable stimuli (having sex, eating certain foods, consuming drugs or alcohol). The pleasurable feelings that result from the release of dopamine also serve to reinforce the behavior. In other words, consuming drugs produces a “high” (dopamine release), which causes the user to seek more drugs to experience even more of the “high” (more dopamine release).

Addiction is commonly associated with substance abuse, but people can be addicted to sex, gambling, video games, and even sugar. From the brain’s perspective, the difference between drugs and sugar (or sex, gambling, and video games) is strikingly similar. Namely, for some people, eating sugar produces surges in dopamine release, giving them the compulsion to eat more and more sugar.

However, just because a person craves sugar does not mean they are addicted; it is when the person feels “out of control” with the substance that it is likely that their brain has been hijacked by the over-production of dopamine.

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