"Food Addiction Works Like Drug Addiction In The Brain," proclaims a recent health headline. The crux of this study is that simply the visuals of an attractive food can trigger the same reward circuitry in the brain for a "food addict" as cocaine does for a drug addict.
Eating disorders are behavioral but also biological. It is about control as much as lack of control, with a complex mix of neurotransmitters and hormones, behavior-driving psychology, and cultural influences at play. Media exposure is also a factor to consider. We are inundated by images of male and female ideals -- usually six-packed and size zero, respectively, alongside image after image of fast and convenience foods and other unhealthier picks in unhealthy quantities.
Science has taught us that certain eating disorders are similar to other types of addictions. Psychology shows us that behaviors can be changed by refocusing thought patterns. Sociology reveals interconnections that can be helpful or harmful in our quest for health and happiness.
This new research published online in the Archives of General Psychiatry tells us that compulsive eaters demonstrate brain activity that is similar to drug and alcohol addicts, with certain triggers or "food cues" activating the brain's reward centers. Seeing a cue, say a chocolate milkshake, can send the brain into a tailspin. Ever notice how after you see a commercial for something like that while watching your evening shows, you start to need something sweet/salty/rich/etc?
Addictions can consume. What makes eating disorders arguably more difficult to manage than other addictions such as alcohol, nicotine, or other drug addiction: We can't eliminate the source of our trigger.
We must confront our addictions daily -- actually, several times a day. We simply cannot live without confronting our triggers on a regular basis; for those who have battled or are in battle with an eating disorder, you know that each meal or snack (and even the thought of each meal and snack) can send you spiraling out of control. So why make it harder than it already is? Are there things we are doing that are creating more of a challenge than necessary?
In the new study, interestingly, the actual consumption of the trigger food (say, that chocolate milkshake) was linked to less reward center activation -- presumably because the brain has become overwhelmed and has shut down these centers. This could have the added effect of causing us to eat more, like those science rats who keep pressing the lever even though nothing is coming out after the first reward, striving to get those pleasure centers activated (remember: "If a little is good, a lot should be even better," thinks the addict).
We could be getting triggered by advertising to crave a certain food, only to set ourselves up for further abuse of our own bodies.
Where's the good news? With knowledge, and with practice and cognitive conditioning, eating disorders or eating addictions can be overcome. We can work to eliminate the negative and increase the positive in our circle of influence. Turn off the television when eating and during trigger points of the day. For me, this is undoubtedly in mid-to-late afternoon and in the evenings.
A book may serve as a much healthier alternative. Better yet? A walk around the block, an active game with your children or spouse, or a mindful meditation to end the day in peaceful reflection. Be aware of what media you and your children are being exposed to; you do have control over this and you can use it to your advantage.
My dad, also a family physician, likes to say: "When you get tired of the suffering, you start to ask questions." The pain and suffering of food addiction is a heavy burden to bear. I have come to see that my path has always been one of merging of science and psychology. It is from this vantage point that I offer suggestions on how to get healthier, often with less use of the health care system, by changing what you already do (eat, for example) for the better.