The biochemical breakdown of food addiction

More of us than ever struggle with eating - whether it be obsessing over the latest diet trend and turning it into a substitute religion, or it be craving food beyond or hunger.

Not all of us are prone to food addiction.

It depends whether we have the underlying biochemical vulnerability for this AND it gets activated.

When we were kids, most of us had the ability to eat when we were hungry and stop when we were not. We had a profound instinct to eat to nourish our body - we didn't eat to fin into a certain size or to follow some diet. Our body wisdom bypasses our conscious knowledge - we just need to tap back into it. And on a side note: not have parents scuffing donuts down our throats at the age of 3, because they think it's cure - no 3 year old craves that stuff until we train them to and override their natural feeding instincts. Don't deprive your kid when in social settings, but don't train them to crave things they don't ask for in the first place. It's not rocket science, and we are only projecting our own issues with food, reward and dieting onto our kids when we do this.

When we were kids, most of us had the ability to eat when we were hungry and stop when we were not. We had a profound instinct to eat to nourish our body - we didn't eat to fin into a certain size or to follow some diet. Our body wisdom bypasses our conscious knowledge - we just need to tap back into it. And on a side note: not have parents scuffing donuts down our throats at the age of 3, because they think it's cure - no 3 year old craves that stuff until we train them to and override their natural feeding instincts. Don't deprive your kid when in social settings, but don't train them to crave things they don't ask for in the first place. It's not rocket science, and we are only projecting our own issues with food, reward and dieting onto our kids when we do this.

Food addiction per se is a slightly concerning term in my opinion.

I'd much prefer to term it food substance addiction or chemical calorie addiction or something of that nature to differ between our natural need for eating according for our unique body set-point, and the actual out-of-control eating patterns that some of us struggle with.

It's kinda like talking about air addiction. We all need food to survive - it's not like other addictive behaviors where we can go cold-turkey.

The thing here is, that there are certain SUBSTANCES in specific foods, that when consumed in excess, can trigger this "drug-like craving" chronic "always hungry" feeling.

And obviously that is painful: to constantly be in a state of feeling like whatever one is eating and even if one is physically full, you just don't feel satisfied. Never experiencing that sense of relief and peace, that we should be feeling after a nourishing meal.

So what is the process by which some of us get addicted to food?

There are 2 chemicals involved in food addiction: serotonin and endorphin. Serotonin promotes relaxation, safety, comfort, relief from pain and decrease of anxiety. Endorphin are our natural painkiller and also provides pleasure - a "high".

serotonin dopamine addiction

Serotonin and endorphin are found in high concentrations in the area of the brain that controls eating, aggression, drinking, sleep and sex.

Neuro-imaging shows that people with food and alcohol addiction have a serotonin and endorphin malfunction. This can either be that not enough is produced or it is not released readily enough due to co-enzyme defect. A person with low serotonin will experience pain and stress more intensely. Their filter is off - everything feels like glass in their nerves.

The neuro-imaging here shows that the normal brain lights up when exposed to food, whereas both the drug addicted and obese brain is slow to register normal pleasure points - over time they need more and more to just feel "normal".

The neuro-imaging here shows that the normal brain lights up when exposed to food, whereas both the drug addicted and obese brain is slow to register normal pleasure points - over time they need more and more to just feel "normal".

When alcohol, refined carbs, sugar and starches is consumed, a steady release of serotonin surges. If someone is in pain or stressed out, this will provide the temporary relief for them to feel good again. And once this cycle is repeated a couple times a new pleasure pathway in the brain is formed.

To break the addiction cycle we need to restore biochemical balance and focus on replenishing the chemicals at play.

This so the we are not prone to give in to quick-fixes. Because the issue with binging on carbs is that it's a short-term relief. Restoring biochemical balance is complex to understand but simple enough to do when you know what is causing your imbalance.

References: 

Int J Eat Disord. 1999 Mar;25(2):169-75. Psychological and physiological characteristics of sweet food "addiction". Tuomisto T et al.

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008;32(1):20-39. Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Avena NM et al.