Compulsive eating can become a dangerous problem in a similar way as abusing alcohol or addictive drugs, according to researchers. In all these instances, the compulsion to use or consume a substance has the potential to become a full-on addiction.
Some Types of Foods Stimulate Brain’s Pleasure Centers
Repeated exposure to sugars, fats, salts, etc., stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers. It creates a feedback loop of craving, indulging, consuming and regretting. This cycle repeats itself the next day, and the next, and so on. If the person continues this cycle in spite of the negative consequences, you have a recipe for addiction.
Research has revealed that approximately 30% of people who try heroin become addicted to the drug. About 16 percent of cocaine users have the same experience. According to a study, when a group of overweight or obese subjects had the definition of addiction explained to them, 29 percent of the subjects said they were addicted to food (Frontiers in Psychiatry).
Over 40% of Americans are obese and 71.5% are considered overweight. These figures suggest an unhealthy relationship with food is common in this country.
No Abstinence Solution for Food Addicts
Food is more subtle than drugs. There is no way that someone with a food addiction can embrace abstinence, since food is essential for life. It would have to be a constant juggling act: Eat a little, without going overboard. Be sure to eat the good stuff and avoid junk food. Sometimes a person will do all the right things, as we all do. There will be days when they binge and make a bad choice about what they eat, just like we all do.
How Dopamine Relates to Pleasure Sensations
Pleasure gets processed in the part of the brain called the striatum. It’s located deep in the midbrain and is rich in D2 receptors, which exist to bind with the feel-good transmitter dopamine. It’s the transmitter that drives the reward system. When a person does something that gives them a sense of satisfaction, dopamine is responsible for the good feeling that follows. It’s also linked to feelings of pleasure around food, intoxication and having sex.
As long as the dopamine levels remain in balance in the striatum, a person’s ability to control their appetite for pleasure will stay in check. They will be able to limit themselves to one piece of cake for dessert or a glass of wine with dinner, for example. If this system starts to blink, such as when too few D2 receptors are in place and too little dopamine is released to engage with them, behavior changes strikingly. It becomes easier to act impulsively, with little thought to the consequences.
Compulsive eaters don’t simply lack willpower or discipline. They have a similar battle on their hands as drug addicts and they need support if they are going to recover.