When we talk about addictions we usually think of tobacco and alcohol, but there is another compulsion that affects up to 14% of adults and even 12% of children: addiction to food.
Indulgent treats that tempt us with fat and sugar can seem impossible to avoid, especially during the holidays. Experts confirm it’s more than just a fad: Half a century’s worth of food trends have created an environment in which more than half of the food consumed by American adults is ultra-processed, which often adds body fat and sugar sensors. adapted to influence. release dopamine. In Spain, the number of ultra-processed foods we consume is at least 20% of the total food (more than in France or Portugal)
These processed products take advantage of our biology to keep us craving more. Ashley Gearhart, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan (United), says, “We don’t know that these foods are actually killing people on a par with things like alcohol and tobacco, which are causing preventable deaths.” States) and is a member of a research team that evaluated the latest data on the prevalence of food addiction in March 2022.
(Related: Can consuming sugar affect people’s intelligence?)
Experts are rewriting what they know about food addiction and raising new questions about what we can do to stop it and save lives.
what does food do for our brain
Food affects our brain in many complex ways, and one particularly important response is the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter. Like drugs, eating food releases dopamine. Contrary to popular belief, dopamine does not increase pleasure. It encourages us to repeat the behaviors that help us survive, such as eating nutritious food and reproducing. The more dopamine that is released, the more likely we are to repeat that behavior.
When we eat fat and sugar, sensors in the mouth send a message to release dopamine in the striatum, a part of the brain associated with movement and rewarding behavior. But that verbal sensory processing is only part of the story, says Alexandra DiFelicantonio, an associate professor at Virginia Tech’s Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. The gut also has a secondary sensor that registers fat and sugar and signals the brain to release dopamine in the same area.
(related: Low-calorie sweeteners may not be as healthy as we thought,
Although researchers are still studying exactly how the presence of sugar is transmitted from the gut to the brain, the way fat is transmitted from the gut to the brain is well documented. When fat is detected in the upper viscera, messages travel through the rhombencephalon to the striatum via the vagus nerve (which controls various unconscious functions such as digestion and respiration).
Foods high in fat and sugar can increase dopamine in the striatum by up to 200% above normal levels, an increase similar to that seen with nicotine and alcohol, the two most common addictions in America. Specifically, one study found that sugar increased dopamine levels by 135–140%, and fat increased them by 160% in another study, although it took longer to take effect. Other drugs work very differently: cocaine can triple normal dopamine levels, while methamphetamine can increase normal dopamine levels by 10 times.
how the food we eat has changed
As we learn more about how food affects our brains, more and more of it is made to be unique to us. Our bodies are inundated with foods that contain higher amounts of certain nutrients, such as fat and sugar, and combinations of nutrients, than ever before. It’s all combined with sensory qualities (like velvety smooth ice cream) that make eating more enjoyable than ever.
Traditionally, humans made food from whole foods: pie crusts, for example, were made from flour and butter. Instead, industrially processed foods are made from substances extracted from food, such as starch and hydrogenated fats. Additives such as artificial flavors, emulsifiers (which keep oil and water mixed), and stabilizers (which preserve the structure or texture of food) make food more palatable, but ultimately to our own detriment.
Experts like DiFelicantonio believe we should make a distinction between highly processed foods and foods made from scratch. Being aware of those differences is the first step in avoiding a long list of diet-related health problems.
“We’ve been eating homemade versions of cakes, cookies, and pizza for a long time. But it wasn’t until the production of ultra-processed foods increased in the 1980s that we saw this diet-related increase in mortality and diseases,” he says. Defeles Antonio.
(related: Cancer vaccines show promise: This is how they work,
Both Gearhart and DiFelicantonio say that highly processed foods can be considered medically addictive. According to what is known as the rate hypothesis, the faster something affects the brain, the more addictive that substance will be. Many processed foods are essentially prepackaged to maximize the rate of dopamine release.
Finally, it would be impossible to leave social and psychological forces out of the equation. Processed foods have been accessible, cheap, and aggressively advertised for generations. That perfect storm has spawned generations of people who know processed foods are unhealthy, but who compulsively gravitate toward them.
“The cues around these foods start to take on a life of their own,” says Gearhart. “When you see a fast food sign or a vending machine, that has so much power and speed for us that even if you are not hungry, or even if your doctor has told you that you have diabetes, you may choose to eat these processed foods. Foods you know aren’t good for you. They’re everywhere; we’re constantly on the defensive against donuts in the morning meeting and late-night pizza advertising.”
How are attitudes changing? What are the questions that remain unanswered?
In recent years, experts have begun to ask new questions about food addiction, as some of their initial hypotheses have been proven false.
For example, tolerance and withdrawal syndrome. They were previously considered fundamental elements of addiction. It was believed that people with food addictions continue to eat to avoid withdrawal symptoms, the unpleasant physical and mental consequences (such as anxiety, nausea, and headaches) that occur when a person stops using a substance. gives.
“Actually, that’s not true,” DiFelicantonio says. “Most drug addiction theories have a lot to do with habitual use, or intense craving. That’s what maintains drug use.”
(Related: The Dangers of Losing Weight With Diabetes Drugs)
Tolerance is almost the opposite of withdrawal: the consequences of continuing to use a substance. As a person’s tolerance to a substance increases, they need to consume greater amounts to get the same effect. In the case of food, the dopamine deficiency hypothesis holds that if we eat something and don’t get enough pleasure from it, we will eat more until we feel better.
“I have some trouble with that hypothesis, because everything we do releases dopamine. So eating broccoli, because it’s delivering nutrients to the gut, releases dopamine,” says DiFelicantonio. “People don’t do things they enjoy, like eating broccoli, to get a lot of dopamine.” He adds that there is also no indication that a threshold can be reached for dopamine to earn rewards.
As research progresses, scientists are left with more questions than answers about how our bodies become addicted to food. We know that dopamine doesn’t tell the whole story, because it is not what makes food pleasurable. Researchers have found evidence that it may actually have a different reason: A 2012 study showed that eating food stimulates our opioid receptors, which increase feelings of pleasure. But scientists know very little about how this process works, because it’s hard to measure opioid levels in a living organism.
Some experts suspect that a sensor located in the upper intestine may play a role in what we like or dislike about food. Others wonder whether something is going on in the hypothalamus, an important part of the brain that controls everything from body temperature to feelings of hunger.
Researchers also want to know which nutrient combinations trigger different levels of dopamine release. Unfortunately, studies in humans require expensive scanners and radiation doses. “You can’t scan the same person 20 times with all the different flavors and combinations and things, so we’re really limited in what we can do,” DiFelicantonio says.
As for the solution, Gearhart says the answer is clear, but it’s far from easy. We can look to the larger social changes that were put in place to limit tobacco use — making cigarettes less affordable and less marketed — and do the same for addictive foods, he says.
There are other ways to fight food addiction.
“Don’t hate yourself for not being able to avoid addictive foods, because it’s not easy. It’s our biology using us against us,” she says. Learn how you turn to these foods, whether it’s certain emotions, places, or times of day. “Try to be aware of this so you can prepare yourself for alternative ways of coping or strategizing in those moments of temptation.”