Food addiction: Harder to kick than cocaine?

I’ve heard people debate it before.  I’ve felt it, before.  And I’ve heard Robb Wolf discuss it before.  And the general consensus is that food is an addictive substance.  Eating can be a positively reinforced habit that our brains constantly crave.  The worse part, however, is that we can never go “cold turkey” off of food.   With each meal we are forced to recondition the habit.   “Relapse” constantly threatens us.  This makes food, science is beginning to show, more difficult to kick than hard drugs.  Yikes.

Research shows that all drugs—alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, heroin, and foods, particularly sweet foods—are habit forming in like ways.  They overstimulate the brain’s reward system, which creates a vicious cycle of dopamine supply and demand.

This “reward system” consists of a circuit of neurons that run through the ventral tegmental area, the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex in the brain.  It is normally activated when an animal does things–such as eating or sex–that help it to survive. This activity increases levels of pleasure-related hormones such as dopamine and serotonin.  This is natural, and this is awesome.   What is not awesome is when drugs overactivate the circuit, and dopamine levels soar.  Dopamine receptors get blown out, such that we are now forced to conduct our lives with a malfunctioning dopamine system (this is the same thing ecstasy does to our serotonin receptors).  We learn to mitigate this “deficiency” with whatever drug caused it in the first place.  One whole banana cream pie, please.

This also means that addictions worsen over time.  What may start out as an innocent habit, such as always going to the fridge when you get home from work, some day may not feel like enough.  So instead of having a salad at that time, now you crave fruit.  Or cheese.  Or fruit cheesecake (mmm).  And in a year you’re coming home and used to downing a big gulp and a whole bag of chips.  These things happen to us, and they happen so slowly that we never notice until we try to stop and realize that we can’t.

Because, as I mentioned above, food is a constant in our lives.  It isn’t going away.  We need to de-condition the pleasure response, and we need to kick certain foods to the curb for good, but it’s very tricky business, staying alive and healthy and doing so at the same time.  After someone dependent on a substance stops using it, it often takes time for depleted dopamine receptors to return to baseline levels.  I find that my need to eat decreases with how often I eat, and I suspect that this is because my brain has adjusted to more normal dopamine levels during that time period.  I also find that my need to eat decreases drastically when I don’t eat carbohydrates, something I’ve discussed before, and is definitely worth keeping in mind.

To quit an addictive cycle, low dopamine levels must be tolerated, but only for a given period of time.  For mice addicted to cocaine, it can take two days to regain normalized levels.  For rats in one study on food addiction, it took two weeks.


To gauge just how much the quantity of dopamine receptors had affected these rats’ eating behavior, Kenny and Johnson of the Scripps Research Institute of Florida inserted a virus into the brains of a test group of the animals to knock out some dopamine receptors. The researchers found that– rather than gradually increasing reward thresholds and accompanying overeating behavior— the dopamine deficient rats took to overeating immediately when given access to a high-fat, high carbohydrate diet.

So the researchers designed an experiment to try to draw a human parallel with the rats, training them to expect an electric shock when they saw a certain light cue. Unlike their plain old chow-fed counterparts (a mix of sprouts and vegetable oils and other crap), obese rats accustomed to food rewards would keep right on gorging even when they knew a shock was coming.

But these are rats!, you protest.  Does the same apply to humans?

You bet your sweet ass it does.

Gene-Jack Wang and Nora Volkow of the Brookhaven National Laboratory discovered that obese people share that dopamine deficiency with many cocaine and alcohol abusers. Their study injected 20 volunteers–10 obese subjects and 10 control subjects– with a radioactive chemical tag designed to bind to dopamine receptors in the brain. Then they scanned these individuals using positron emission tomography and counted the numbers of receptors they saw. The obese subjects not only had fewer dopamine receptors than did the normal-weight subjects, but the number of receptors was lower for patients who were heavier.  With increasing weight, and presumably increasingly “unhealthy” diets, dopamine levels decreased.  People who are conditioned to get dopamine from foods need more and more as their addictions worsen.


There is a lot of discussion in the scientific community about genetics, and how it plays a role in chemical addiction.  While true that some people are more susceptible than others, I don’t really fucking care.  Two rats in the whole study above abstained from bingeing.  Two. Fuck those two.  We’re all susceptible.  The lesson here isn’t that science is going to find some miracle to cure addiction (though of course we’ve all got our fingers crossed) or even that it’s going to be able to tell us who is most susceptible to the addiction demon, but rather that we’ve all got to be careful.

And we have just got to forgive ourselves if we find that we have food addictions or habits.   Food can never (and should never) be eliminated from our lives, so we are forced to confront disordered behaviors while continually interacting with our demons.  It’s hard as shit, and if you hate yourself for struggling I will come right to your house and shake you.  Depression and feelings of self-loathing decrease dopamine levels, so every time you have negative feelings about yourself you are only helping the monster.


Addiction is nasty, but it’s not unconquerable.  Long roads and enduring positivity are the names of the game.  Breathe.  Love.  Breathe.  Love.


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03 2011

11 Comments Add Yours ↓

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  1. Mom #

    So well written. Maybe understanding the workings of our addictions can aid us in conquering them. And another reason to keep those high-carb foods at bay.

  2. 2

    My ghod, what an eye opening post. I’ve *known* about my addictions (grains, sugar) for a long time, and when I cave and eat something sugary I’m always hungry for the next day or two. So yes, personally I’d vouch that the phenomenon is true. But your post just blows me away with the science and the facts of it…it’s just a little terrifying, honestly. But in an motivational way, kind of like when my nutritionist first told me I was gluten intolerant. It makes me realize how *damn important* it is for me to stay away from certain foods.

    I went cold-turkey on paleo last fall in October, and people were really against that idea. There was a lot of pressure to “adjust slowly” by well meaning friends; but this post shows why and how that would never have worked for me. At all.

    Not to sound creepy, but I really adore you. :)


    • pepper #

      YEAH. Yeah. It’s not a joke, you know? I come across as crazy as fuck to a lot of the people I meet here, but I’m not changing my rules for the sake of my reputation. Even carbs as innocuous as vegetables make me unduly hungry, so I do my absolute best to stay away from them. Veggies are an indulgence for me, and that’s just the way it is.

      I bask in your adoration, friend.

  3. 4

    Have you seen this video by Gabor Mate?

    I find it really interesting, as he lays out a case for other addiction pathways aside from dopamine. My new thing is to cringe any time I hear “emotional overeating” … as if it’s not physiological!

    • pepper #

      Well, I say “emotional eating” all the time. It’s both. Dopamine is a part of our emotions, too, you know? It’s all chemical. If we’re depressed, we have low dopamine levels, which is what makes us (read: me) want to eat more. So I believe both that food addiction is a physiological problem and that it is an emotional problem. We have to attack it on all fronts. Huzzah!

  4. 6

    Great post, Pepper! Gives me some ammo when the boyfriend whimpers if I ask him to please NOT offer me any cookies, cakes, donuts, pizza or other detrimental items that I am simply unable to say no to at this point. He knows I’m on a mission to get fit and STILL tries to be “polite” and offer me sweets and junk food [angry symbols here].


    • pepper #

      Yeah! And then I bet he gets offended when you say no. I don’t understand– it’s like, perhaps people are threatened by our commitment to change. I often experienced, when losing weight, and now, still, that people keep encouraging me to eat. Like they either don’t want me to change, or they want me to be as “lax” as they are to ease their own guilt, or they think that what they’re doing is really going to increase my pleasure.. I say NO WAY to all of them. Leave me alone. I am battling a problem and I need your support! Damn.

  5. 8

    This makes so much sense! Also explains the “MORE” impulse once you’ve had a little bit of sugar – dopamine receptors were hit a little but not enough for a full fix, especially for someone accustomed to sugar fixes. I’m sharing this post via Google Reader. :)

    • pepper #

      Yes! Awesome! Thank you!

  6. 10

    check it out bro

  7. Katie #

    I have been struggling with this since I was eight… so twenty years. ALSO I am 6 years sober from alcohol. I am not saying that was easier by any means….but as you said, you can’t just eliminate food and the twelve step programs out there for overeating don’t seem to cut it like AA. Maybe people don’t realize that food addictions are life and death just like drugs and alcohol. I have bookmarked your site…thank you for telling the truth. I am obsessed:)


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