You won’t find “food addiction” listed alongside other disorders in any psych textbook, but an increasing number of scientists believe it’s a real thing. That’s because a number of them have looked at your brain on food.
They used high-tech scanning devices that measure blood flow to look at what was going on in the brains of people eating highly palatable foods such as chocolate or those high in fat. They found that the same areas that light up in the brains of drug addicts—the regions linked with pleasure and reward—are also most active in people eating something tasty. A 2007 University of Oxford study found the effect is more pronounced in people who “crave” chocolate or other foods. “Craving” is the same powerful drive that makes substance abusers anxious to score their next hit.
Animal research suggests just how strong the desire for intense sweetness may be. In one study done at the University of Bordeaux in France, 94 percent of rats given the choice between intravenous cocaine and water sweetened with saccharin (which is sweeter than sugar), chose the saccharin drink over the drug. University of Washington studies found that naloxone, a drug that blocks the effects of opiates, also quells human cravings for cookies, candy and other sweets—more evidence that food and drug addiction occur in the same place in the brain
Some scientists propose that there is an evolutionary reason why our sweet-seeking senses are so powerful: Our inborn desire for sweet and palatable foods kept us alive by motivating us to hunt for food when getting something to eat was more taxing and dangerous than heading to the fridge.
But like drug addicts, food cravers aren’t satisfied with just one, just this once. Repeatedly stimulating your brain’s rewards centers—with drugs or food—keeps you coming back for more. Sometimes much much more, leading to loss of control and, in the case of food addiction, bingeing, according to researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse and Alcoholism, who have turned their attention to food addiction as well.
Binge-eating disorder, or BED, was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders, in 2013. The DSM is the “rule book” that establishes diagnostic criteria for all psychological conditions. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), BED is characterized by chronic overeating of large amounts of food, usually until uncomfortably full. People with BED eat when they’re not physically hungry and usually eat alone because they’re embarrassed by how much they eat. They feel out of control, unable to stop.
Unlike bulimics, people with BED usually don’t purge after eating. But, like bulimics, they do experience enormous guilt, shame and self-loathing—negative emotions that can lead to more bingeing. It’s emotional eating taking to the nth degree, according to the NEDA.
If you’re someone who is trying to lose weight—or who has tried multiple times before—you’re at higher risk of BED than other people. experts say. Repeated dieting, a history of significant weight changes, emotional problems such as depression and anxiety, feeling stigmatized because of your weight, trauma, loss or emotional or physical abuse can all predispose you to binge eating. Genes may also play a role.
According to a review of studies by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), research has found that both interpersonal therapy, which focuses on improving the ways in which you communicate with and relate to the people in your life, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a short-term form of psychotherapy that helps you change the thinking and behavior that are behind the problems you’re having, can be effective in treating BED. CBT was particularly effective in decreasing the frequency of binge episodes, the report found.
Some drugs, including antidepressants, may also help, says the AHRQ report, In fact, antidepressants were 1.67 times more likely than placebo-a fake drug used in testing—to help people stop bingeing. Drugs also helped some people stop thinking about food and curbed the drive to binge eat.
One drug approved for BED treatment, lisdexamfetamine, which was originally developed to treat attention deficit disorder, was 2.61 times more effective than a placebo in curbing binges. An anti-seizure drug, topiramate, also reduced bingeing abut was associated with more side effects than other medications, the report says.
If you think you have BED or are addicted to food, your best bet is to talk to a professional—a psychologist or counselor who treats eating disorders. He or she will be able to help you decide on a plan that will work best for you.
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