Careful with your cravings

Aoife O'Brien

FFor most people, the word addiction has negative conations. We associate it with gambling, drugs and alcoholism. But there is another substance whose control over its dependents is greater than any illicit drug. That substance is food.

Coming second after tobacco addiction, food addiction affects 5.4% of the population and almost 7% of women according to a study carried out by ‘Healthline’. This trumps alcoholism at 4%, cannabis use at 3.5% and gambling at an estimated 1.5% of the population.

Despite this, most people cannot understand food addiction.

If someone says they’re addicted to food, we tend to brush it under the carpet. After all, don’t we all crave that extra slice of chocolate cake after dinner?

But real food addiction is much more than a simple craving. It is an obsession that takes over the life of the addict.

This is because eating triggers the release of dopamine allowing us to feel pleasure. It is basically the brain’s way of rewarding us for engaging in a basic life-sustaining activity. Dopamine is the same chemical that is released when the brain experiences pleasure from drugs or alcohol, food can trigger the same cycle of addiction like any other addictive substance.

First comes the high. When we eat highly palatable foods, particularly those high in sugar and fat, our brain gives us a hit of dopamine. This ‘reward’ becomes associated with the food so that this pleasure can be experienced again in the future.

Then comes the slump. Over time, the addict’s tolerance increases. Their day becomes consumed by eating. Ordinary social activities no longer trigger a release of dopamine comparable to the reward that can be obtained from food. However even this can only be achieved through ever-increasing amounts of food, eventually leading to depression, irritability and stress further increasing the need for a high.

Finally comes the cravings. The parts of the brain that decide on the importance of things and take actions based on this decision are no longer working efficiently. Strong urges become almost impossible to resist and despite persistent attempts to avoid certain foods, the addict is unsuccessful.

This is not a question of willpower. The chemical responses in the brain have been distorted and the only way to rewire them back to a point where it responds normally to food is to avoid the trigger substance.

What makes food addiction so complicated is that we need food to survive. Human beings don’t need alcohol to live. We don’t need illicit drugs, caffeine, or nicotine.

The social consequences for a food addict are also far less severe than those experienced by other addicts. An alcoholic is a ‘bum’, drug addicts are ‘junkies’, and while these stereotypes have negatives consequences often causing the addict to lose their job or their home, hitting this rock bottom often allows families of the addict to finally be able to break through and convince them to get help.

However, food addiction does not have a comparable rock bottom and despite the health risks such as stroke, coronary heart disease or depression these illnesses are recognised far more widely than the one causing them.

Food addiction is an illness. Our biological necessity for food does not make it any less of an illness. We need to stop making excuses for addicts. They are not greedy and they do not simply have a larger appetite than everyone else. These excuses are enabling food addiction and its consequences will continue to get ever more severe until such time as it is universally recognised for the illness that it is.


Aoife O’Brien

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