Food Addiction May Be Chemical

Cookies | Photo: JoshSemans/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Food addiction has a bit of a murky existence in the science community. To understand why, you have to look at the various definitions of the word "addiction."

You see, there are two categories of addiction: The "substance" variety (this includes the classic examples of smoking, alcohol, and hard drugs) which alters the chemical composition of your body, making it physically tough to quit. And then there's the "process" type of addiction (things like gambling, shopping, sex) that are focused more on the chemical interactions in the brain occurring because an activity is going on. Simply put, lock someone in a room to prevent access to smokes/booze/drugs and you're going to get someone with cold sweats and DTs as their body gets rid of the addictive chemicals it's stored up over the years. Lock someone in that same room to prevent access to gambling/shopping/sex, not so much.

Food, however, falls into this weird betweener category.

Story continues below

No one argues that eating does not change the composition of someone's body. That's the whole point of food, after all. (To extend our previous example, lock someone in a room to prevent them from eating, they'll die.) But a lot of science actually skews the direction of food addiction more into the latter category, suggesting that it's the actual "process" of eating (the taste sensations, the mastication, the feelings of being full, etc.) that is to blame rather than physical alterations to the body. As such, eating disorders are classically treated by focusing on the addict's mind rather than body, forgoing patches and methadone for therapy and twelve step programs. But that all may be about to change.

As this article at The Daily Beast explains, there's now more science to back the claim that food addiction is chemical:

That means foods like donuts, cheesecakes, bacon; the ones that have your mouth watering now just thinking about them. As part of the study being cited, researchers gave rats access to fatty, sugar-laden food. The rodents would binge on them, even when other options were made available, even when they were threatened with electrical shocks. And when the food was taken away, "animals experienced classic withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, tremors, and chattering teeth." But most frightening of all might be what happened to their babies:

Scary stuff. But this all is just precursor to the big multi-million dollar question from all of this lab work: What do you do with this information? Drugs may begin getting prescribed a bit more liberally, and perhaps some kind of sugar-craving-blocker can be processed, but that might simply not be enough.

Meaning a world in which there are two categories of food: The addictive and the necessary. The former would come with a warning label like those on cigarette cartons. At some point, certain foods just not be made available to children under a certain age (until they get their in-the-know friend to get them fake IDs, that is). A dramatic step in government regulation is, no doubt, quite a ways away at this point -- although something tells me potato chip companies are already siphoning off profits to be put into a "lobbyist fund" for when the time's right -- but it still raises the question:

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading