Are you addicted? Research shows common ingredients in our food could be creating chemical dependencies.
“For me, sugar is like a drug. I’ve never tried cocaine, but I imagine it would be similar,” said Colleen O’Sullivan*, a petite woman in her early forties, who struggled with food for over a decade.
“I saw my parents battle with alcohol and watched it take over their lives. I’ve known smokers who acknowledged they were killing themselves while rolling their own cigarettes.
“I fully appreciate the resignation they must have felt as they gave in to their addictions because I’ve felt that with food,” said Colleen.
Dr Tracy Burrows, senior lecturer in the School of Health Sciences at the University of Newcastle, thinks that certain food ingredients might trigger feel-good chemicals in the brain, like dopamine – the same chemical that is stimulated by highly addictive drugs including methamphetamines and cocaine. This could explain Colleen’s experience.
“When people eat foods they enjoy and the levels of dopamine increase in the brain, those with a possible food addiction may experience an altered sense of pleasure or reward,” Burrows said.
“The response to these foods may override signs of fullness and as a result, people with food addiction keep eating,” she said.
Dr Burrows is conducting research to determine whether “addiction” to pleasurable foods high in fat, salt and sugar, could be contributing to the obesity epidemic.
The use of the term “addiction” in relation to foods is highly controversial. Everyone claims to be addicted to chocolate or chips, but it only becomes a disease at the moment when that particular stimulus interferes with a person’s well being.
“I knew I had a problem when my roommates began writing their names on their food in the cupboard, so that I would stop raiding it,” said Colleen.
“My life just became about food. I’d think about what I was going to eat, and when. And after I had eaten until I felt sick, I would just sleep.
“After a big binge I honestly don’t think I would even have been able to drive. It was like being drunk,” she said.
Technically, addiction is defined as a continued or compulsive use of a substance, despite negative and/or harmful consequences. However, addiction has been redefined to include behaviours, as well as substances, and the term is now used to describe significant problems with alcohol, nicotine, drugs, gambling, internet use, and sex.
The ‘major’ addictions, like alcoholism and drug abuse, have stimulated vast amounts of research resulting in a better understanding of the mechanisms at play, but addictions like pathological gambling and people’s obsession with Facebook continue to confound.
More puzzling still, is food – a biological necessity and unlike any of the other substances or behaviours typically considered as addictive, according to Dr Dana Small and Dr Ralph DiLeone, from the Yale School of Medicine.
“I ate to the point that I felt numb. I never became obese, but if you measured the kilojoules I consumed on a daily basis, rather than the kilograms recorded on the scale, it would have become immediately apparent that I had an ‘issue’ with food,” said Colleen.
“Ultimately, in order to recover, I had to completely change my diet because the processed foods wreaked havoc on my mood, leaving me lethargic and depressed,” she said, “and the nutrient-poor, calorie-dense diet I had become accustomed to only created a constant craving for more.”
Craving – that consuming desire to get and eat a favourite snack food, is something most people have experienced. It doesn’t just happen to food addicts. “Craveability” it seems, is the result of complex combinations that arouse the taste buds without overwhelming them, thereby overriding the brain’s tendency to say “enough.”
According to Michael Moss, New York Times investigative reporter and author of the recently released book, Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Colleen’s exacerbating experience was exemplary of the intended addictive response manufactured into highly-processed foods, causing people to crave, and consume them, often in excess, despite the fact that they are unhealthy.
Moss described labs where food scientists use cutting-edge technology to calculate the “bliss point” of sugary beverages, and enhance the “mouthfeel” of fat by manipulating its chemical structure.
These highly processed, ‘highly palatable’ foods are proving to have addictive properties unlike other foods, due to clever engineering which amps up their reward value through the use of excessive sugar, salt and fat. A formulaic blend of these key ingredients signals the brain to eat more.
No one, including Burrows, is suggesting that an addiction to food is as strong as those that drive people addicted to methamphetamines or cocaine. But if Burrows’ team is able to identify a connection between overeating and addiction, they may be able to disprove the notion that overeaters merely lack self-discipline.
It seems frequency of exposure to an addictive substance in the environment can also shift brain neurochemistry, increasing the likelihood of dependence, according to research conducted with animals. If that’s true for humans, the Australian environment is ideally suited to nurture food addictions.
Regardless, most food companies and many nutritionists believe that research should not absolve consumers of responsibility for what they eat.
Professor of Health, Law & Governance at the University of Sydney, Roger Magnusson agrees that people are responsible for their health through the choices they make, but only partly so.
“I see obesity as a population problem,” said Professor Magnusson.
“Trying to energise individuals to exercise personal responsibility is difficult to achieve, because change has to occur in every individual.
“A smarter solution is to change the environment in which individual decisions take place and to make healthier choices easier . . . to make the ‘default choice’ the healthy choice,” said Magnusson.
The idea of food being addictive still has sceptics, but depending on the results of Burrow’s research, it stands to open the door for public-policy changes that could have as profound an effect on the food industry as nicotine research had on tobacco.
Categorizing calorie- and fat-dense foods as potentially addictive could pave the way for restrictions in the way certain foods are marketed and sold, opening the door to cigarette-style taxes and warning labels, and consigning some kinds of food to pariah status.
“With obesity rates skyrocketing at regional, national and international levels we need to determine whether food addiction plays a significant role in this major global issue,” said Dr Burrows.
It’s certainly food for thought.
*name has been changed to protect privacy