Scientists have long debated the similarities between food addiction and drug addiction. For years, medical professionals have argued whether or not the latter should be included in the DSM, the quintessential bible of mental health diagnostics.
Those who argue against its inclusion in the DSM claim that people cannot be “addicted” to food because, well, we all have to eat, right? How could someone be addicted to something they need to do in order to survive? To these folks, acknowledging that someone could be addicted to food would be like saying that someone could be addicted to blinking, sneezing or breathing.
In reality, however, food can actually be quite addictive. Sugar, for example, has been shown to affect the brain in a similar way to opiates. While we may not get an opiate high from eating a candy bar, eating too many of them over time can cause the brain to become chemically dependent on sugar.
The similarities between these two addictions are actually quite jarring. It’s interesting to see how food, something we consume on a daily basis, can be as addictive and dangerous as illicit drugs.
But First…Let’s Define Food Addiction
It’s important to clarify here that food addiction and eating disorders, while somewhat similar, are also very different. Conditions like anorexia and bulimia are currently acknowledged by the DSM-5 and treated accordingly. As many professionals have pointed out, these diseases have much less to do with the food itself and much more to do with the rituals around eating and the acts of binging and purging.
The addiction that we’ll address in this article is one in which the addict is addicted to the effects that food has on their brain. This addiction does involve overeating but does not involve purging or intentional abstinence.
8 Ways That Food Addiction is Like Drug Addiction
Both Conditions “Hack” Your Brain
Both food and drug addiction result from damage done to the brain’s reward circuit. The reward circuit (or “reward pathway”), reminds you to repeat pleasurable activities.
Essentially, it works like this: When you do something enjoyable like eating an ice cream cone, your brain receives a huge rush of dopamine and serotonin. These are the chemicals that make you feel happy. The reason that these chemicals exist is to let you know that certain experiences are enjoyable so you’ll remember to do them again. If you really enjoy that first ice cream cone, your brain will take note of that experience and trigger reminders every time you drive by an ice cream shop or walk down the freezer aisle in the grocery store.
Drugs do the same thing. Drugs like cocaine, heroin, and meth provide the brain with an extreme rush of dopamine and serotonin. So, once a user experiences that rush, their brain remembers it and triggers them to crave the drug from time to time.
Which brings us to the next similarity…
They Both Generate SERIOUS Cravings
Everyone is familiar with the TV stereotype of a drug addict—a shabbily-dressed homeless person running around town, scratching their arms and neck, in search of a fix. Obviously, this is not what the average addict looks like. However, there is some truth in it. Addicts do experience uncontrollable cravings for their drug of choice.
When someone is addicted to food, they’ll experience cravings as intense as those that a drug addict feels. These cravings aren’t like the “Man, I could really go for a cheeseburger right now” feeling that many of us get. They are much more extreme and much more dangerous than that.
Like drug cravings, food cravings are rooted in the addict’s reward circuit. When the individual gets a desire to eat ice cream or french fries, it’s not simply because the food tastes good and they enjoy it. It’s actually because the food will satisfy a deficit of dopamine in the brain that can only be relieved by eating that food. If the addict continues to feed these cravings, they’ll essentially train their brain to depend on that substance.
They Can Both Be Dangerous
If either condition is left untreated, it can severely decrease the addict’s quality of life. Drug addicts may experience a variety of physical side effects depending on their drug of choice. In the worst-case scenario, the addict can die of an overdose.
Obviously, immediate overdoses aren’t a threat when it comes to eating. However, an addiction to certain foods can lead to immense weight gain which can lead to the heart disease, diabetes or other illnesses over time.
The problem that any addict faces is an increased tolerance. When someone continuously requires more and more of a certain substance to satisfy their cravings, they make the problem worse. A food addict who eats more food at each meal is much like a heroin addict who takes a larger hit each time. They both prolong the problem and heighten their chances of facing severe side effects.
Food Addiction Can Also Produce Withdrawals
When addicts fail to feed their cravings, they can go into withdrawal. And whether the addict is addicted to pizza or Percocet, the side effects of withdrawal can be quite uncomfortable.
You may be familiar with some common symptoms of drug withdrawal: stomach cramps, nausea, severe cravings, etc. However, the symptoms of food withdrawal are less known. That is likely because an individual who is trying to quit eating sugar, for example, will experience withdrawal symptoms that are much more subtle than someone who is trying to quit using meth.
Because food addicts are most commonly addicted to processed foods like sugar and carbohydrates, the most common withdrawal symptoms that they experience are headaches, stomach aches, and exhaustion. Both sugar and carbs affect the brain in a profound way, so withdrawal symptoms stem from the body trying to adjust to operating without those substances in it.
Surprisingly, food withdrawals tend to last far longer than drug withdrawals. While an average opiate addict can detox in around a week, food addicts can feel the side effects of detox for nearly a month.
Fortunately, withdrawal symptoms can always be managed no matter what an addict is detoxing from. There are plenty of detox resources for drug addicts and food addicts alike.
Denial is a Key Sign
In order to get proper treatment, of course, addicts must admit to themselves that they have a problem. When someone is truly addicted to food or drugs, though, it can take them a while to recognize this. They often believe that they can quit any time they want.
It tends to be much easier for drug addicts to come to the conclusion that drugs are an issue for them. Food addiction is much more difficult to define. Because eating is something that we all do every single day, it can be tough for someone to acknowledge that food is causing problems in their life.
If someone you love is a drug addict and their habit is becoming an issue, you’ll likely have tangible evidence that you can point to in order to justify your concern: they crashed the car while driving drunk, they’re stealing money to pay for heroin, etc. These events don’t usually result from food addiction.
The problems that food causes are usually related to the addict’s physical health. A diabetic person who can’t stop drinking Coca-Cola, for example, is at great risk. If an individual is putting themselves in danger by consuming certain foods eating too much food but still can’t manage their habit, they are likely an addict.
Both Addictions are Hard to Quit
The inability to quit is a key indicator of addiction. If someone repeatedly tries to quit using drugs or eating unhealthy food but just can’t, it’s because that substance has carved out a special role in the person’s brain.
It’s common, after all, for drug addicts to relapse after they detox. Studies estimate that between 40% and 60% of all addicts return to using at some point after they’ve completed withdrawals.
These numbers are similar when it comes to food addicts as well. Less than 80% of overweight individuals who lose 10% of their body weight are able to keep the weight off for longer than a year. This is likely due to the fact that those individuals return to their old eating habits at some point.
The dopamine effect that food and drugs have made it difficult for some people to manage their relationship with them. When your brain associates these things with joy, you can turn to them as a source of temporary happiness whenever life gets stressful.
There’s a Stigma Attached to Both
No one ever wants to admit that they’re addicted to something. Even if eating or using drugs is having negative consequences on your health and well-being, it can be hard to let anyone know. There is a stigma around addiction that makes it feel shameful.
One thing that all addicts share is that they tend to keep their habit a secret. If an addict does let anyone else into their world, it is likely to be with other people who also have the same problem. We see this in drug addicts, who often grow distant from their non-using friends and family when they’re struggling with a habit. We also see it in food addicts, who binge eat in private.
Unfortunately, many non-addicts believe that the condition is a matter of willpower. They simply don’t recognize that addictive behaviors are a real neurological condition. This tends to strengthen the stigma around addiction, making it very difficult for individuals to reach out for help when they need it most.
They Can Both Be Rooted in Mental Illness
Many drug addicts are diagnosed with co-occurring disorders. This means that they suffer from both a substance use disorder and a mental illness simultaneously. Conditions like anxiety and depression are often recognized as the root cause of addictive behavior in addicts. Studies show that roughly 50% of all addicts suffer from one of these illnesses.
Food addiction is strongly linked to mental illness, as well. While the national statistics on co-occurring food disorders are slim, much research points out that the desire to eat is often triggered by “stressful or negative emotional responses”.
This is not surprising, considering food’s ability to release positive neurotransmitters like dopamine into our brain.
It does mean, however, that an addiction to food should be treated with therapy and counseling. Much like drug addiction, the condition can be treated on a physical level through detox. However, an addict who is committed to improving their life should attempt to address the psychological roots of their addiction. By seeking treatment for their depression or anxiety, the addict will reduce their risk of relapsing.
Good News: Every Addiction Can Be Treated
Both drug and food addictions are serious conditions that can drastically diminish your quality of life. Fortunately, no addiction is untreatable. There are a number of resources available to individuals that suffer from either condition.
If you or someone you love struggles with an addiction to food, check out Overeaters Anonymous. This organization provides support for individuals whose eating habits have become uncontrollable. The group holds regular meetings all over the country where addicts gather to help each other through the recovery process. Attending these meetings may help you learn how to manage your habits in order to prevent some serious side effects down the road.
If you or a loved one is struggling with drug addiction, please give us a call. AspenRidge Recovery is a drug detox and rehab program located in Colorado. Our doctors and addiction professionals will work with you to develop a personalized treatment program that will help you get on the road to a drug-free life.