Last updated: 05/31/2019
Author: Addictions.com Medical Review
Reading Time: 3 minutes
Food’s role in meeting the body’s physical needs takes on a whole other purpose when food addiction enters the picture. Addiction, in and of itself, involves a psychological component that reinforces a substance’s physical effects on the body. Likewise, food can meet a person’s psychological needs much like it meets his or her physical needs.
As with drugs and alcohol, one person may turn to food as a means to relieve stress while another may find comfort when eating certain types of foods. More oftentimes than not, addiction fills a void in a person’s life when his or her coping skills fall short in meeting everyday obligations. When the psyche comes to depend on foods’ effects in everyday life, a food addiction develops in much the same way.
Brain Reward System Effects
The brain’s reward system plays a central role in learning processes. Certain activities, such as eating can trigger dopamine endorphin secretions along the brain’s reward pathway. Dopamine chemical secretions produce feelings of calm and relaxation while creating a reinforcing effect every time a certain activity triggers dopamine secretions.
In the case of food addiction, foods high in fats and sugars can activate the brain’s reward system in much the same way cocaine and nicotine do. Over time, continually consuming foods with high fat and/or high sugar content alters brain processes in such a way that food becomes a primary motivator for a person’s everyday behaviors.
Likewise, experiencing withdrawal effects when food amounts are reduced become another food addiction component. As the brain gets used to food addiction effects, it becomes less able to produce dopamine secretions on its own. When this happens, withdrawal effects, such as irritability, anxiety and depression develop since brain chemical levels have been set off balance.
People affected by food addiction often gravitate towards foods containing high levels of fats and sugars. These foods just so happen to affect the brain in much the same way opiate drugs, such as heroin and Demerol do, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Opiate drugs create calming, relaxing, mildly euphoric effects that can greatly reduce stress levels.
Opiate drugs are also highly addictive in terms of how they affect chemical processes in the brain, not unlike the effects of fats and sugars. Over time, the brain becomes dependent on the effects of these foods, which marks the start of the food addiction cycle.
The commonly used phrase “comfort foods” is an accurate description of how someone battling a food addiction becomes emotionally attached to certain favorite foods. Fatty foods in particular can directly affect the parts of the brain that regulate moods and emotions.
For someone who’s feeling depressed and/or angry, the brain chemical effects from eating a cheesecake or extra-cheesy potato dish can easily turn into a source of comfort. When a person turns to food on a frequent basis, this source of comfort becomes an emotional attachment that enables him or her to cope with daily life.