Food cravings can be powerful and as irresistible as a bright orange bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos. Even the thought of such foods increases dopamine, a brain chemical that controls emotions, motivation, and feelings of pleasure.
Addictive foods like Doritos trigger the same chemicals and pleasure pathways in the brain as cocaine and heroin. The fat in Doritos is a mouthwatering sensation; the brain’s trigeminal nerve, which detects fat, conveys the signal straight to the brain’s reward center. Processed foods high in fat, salt, and sugar can be as addictive as drugs and alcohol.
Our brains adjust to the greater degree of fat, sugar and salt in the foods we eat—brain cells and brain chemicals change. Over time, we may develop signs of physical addiction to addictive foods such as an increasing tolerance to their pleasurable effects. We need to eat more to get the same effect. Food addiction is a brain disease because the abuse of food leads to changes in the structure and function of the brain.
Food addiction is the loss of control over eating certain foods like chips, chocolate and pizza that causes compulsive eating, despite harmful consequences to the addict and those around them. Food addictions can be tougher than a drug or alcohol habit to beat because we have to eat to survive. Unlike diabetes which doctors can diagnose with a simple blood test, no diagnostic test exists for the disease of addiction. Some experts don’t even agree with using the term “addiction,” a pejorative word that adds to the stigmatization of people with substance abuse disorders.
Habituation means psychological dependence on the brain chemicals triggered by addictive foods. Food addicts have an emotional relationship with food. Chocolate is one of the most addictive foods because it boosts endorphins and the feel-good chemical serotonin. Small amounts are OK but addictive foods can become an unhealthy lifeline, a tool in our emotional survival kit. For many people, addictive foods are like an alcoholic beverage is to the alcoholic. Abstinence may be the only path to recovery.