A growing body of research suggests that food can be as addictive as drugs like cocaine and nicotine. In addition to being unhealthy, processed, sugary, wheat-based, fatty and salty, foods affect the reward circuitry in the brain, resulting in compulsive eating despite the well-known risks of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cancer and other negative consequences.
Late Princeton psychologist Dr. Bartley Hoebel hypothesized that both drugs and sugar are governed by three characteristic phases of addiction: binge, withdrawal, and preoccupation. Like drugs, studies show that people can develop a tolerance to sugar, needing more and more to feel pleasure, and experience withdrawal-like symptoms when cut off from sugar. Interestingly, drugs we use to block opiate receptors in the brain, such as naltrexone and topiramate, also reduce cravings for fatty and sugary foods.
Other studies have revealed some interesting findings about food addiction:
• A Yale study found that the brain activity of women with three or more symptoms of food addiction who viewed images of and then drank a chocolate milkshake was similar to drug addicts. Just as drug addicts’ brains light up when viewing drugs or drug paraphernalia, food addicts’ brains light up in the areas governing pleasure and reward when looking at high-fat foods and show reduced activity in regions involved with self-control when actually consuming those foods.