Eat, Drink, And Be Merry? Why Food Addiction and Substance Addiction Are So Similar
There are few things in life as obvious as the human desire for food – especially great tasting food. If there’s one thing else we know, however, it’s that humans are also wired to enjoy substances that impact our brain’s reward system and make us feel good. So add alcohol, to say, chocolate ice cream, and the consumption of which you may find is beyond euphoric.
There are a number of similarities between food addiction and substance addiction – and perhaps surprising to some, a lack willpower or moral strength is not among them.
Substances And Food Reward The Brain
Both substance and food addiction exhibit a similar effect on the brain – as do behavioral addictions, such as gambling. Drugs, alcohol, and certain types of food can dramatically increase dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that makes us feel pleasure.
After the long-term consumption of certain foods, such as highly processed “junk” food or psychoactive substances, the number of dopamine receptors decreases. This reaction doesn’t reduce desire but unfortunately does make these consumables less pleasurable.
Both Cause Tolerance And Cravings
Brain changes can induce intense cravings in food addicts and compulsive eaters. They often crave food that is, as noted above, highly processed, salty, fatty, or sweet. And because they are harder to satisfy, they engage in binge eating in an attempt to make up for the lack of reward to which they are accustomed.
The drug and alcohol parallel is tolerance. Tolerance occurs when more and more of the substance is needed to achieve the same effect. When an addict doesn’t have access to a substance or tries to cut back, the brain is still reward-seeking and may continue to react accordingly despite the negative consequences that may result. These are cravings, and just like food craving, they can be very intense.
“At every stage, addiction is driven by one of the most powerful, mysterious,
and vital forces of human existence. What drives addiction is longing –
a longing not just of brain, belly, or loins but finally of the heart.”
~ Cornelius Platinga
Withdrawals Occur In Food Addicts, As Well
Withdrawal symptoms occur when cravings for a food or substance are not met. These symptoms range widely but are generally both physically and mentally unpleasant or downright unbearable. This effect is universally noted in substance addiction and can occur even after short periods of substance use, such as a night of heaving drinking.
Anxiety and depression are common symptoms of withdrawal. People who eat foods high in certain additives and chemicals may experience both mental health conditions when they try to quit or cut back. The negative feelings associated with not being satisfied with a reward occur along with cravings, and this experience is often enough to break a food addict, even if he or she is strongly motivated to change eating habits.
Both Engage In Multiple Attempts To Change, But Fail/Relapse
Again, withdrawal symptoms and cravings tend to pull people back into alcohol or drug use or undesirable levels of food consumption. Dieters commonly fall off the wagon and return to poor eating habits.
There is a mental component here too – once someone “cheats” on a diet, they often feel like a failure, give up, and end up falling far down the spiral into binge-eating and other harmful eating behaviors.
This is also why so many people who initially lose weight gain it back. And those who use substances know that relapse is a common occurrence in recovery efforts. Sometimes all it takes is a trigger, cue, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And like food addicts, relapses can cause guilt, thus encouraging the user to go on a drug or alcohol binge.
Addictive Behavior Continues Despite Consequences
Addiction is so powerful that for some, no consequences are enough to encourage and sustain abstinence. Drug addicts may get busted for possession, and alcoholics may get picked up for driving under the influence. They may incur a wealth of legal and family troubles, but that isn’t enough to stop them. In fact, sometimes these troubles are used as fodder for depression and helplessness and more substance abuse.
People who suffer from food addiction may gain weight and incur weight-related problems such as diabetes and heart disease. They may have trouble getting around and become debilitated but will continue to eat or relapse off of a diet despite the negative impact on their physical health.
People With Food Addiction Or Substance Addiction Experience Shame And Isolation
Substance abusers and compulsive eaters are often stigmatized and feel ashamed and out-of-control over their behaviors. They use substances or eat in secrecy to hide the truth of their addiction.
Those who suffer from drug or alcohol addiction are often deemed of low moral character or lacking willpower, and those who compulsively eat are often overweight and also teased about being fat or gluttonous.
Both types of addicts tend to avoid activities and social gatherings because of their addiction and the fear of judgment. This isolation often results in more abuse of food or substances, makes the condition worse, and perpetuates a downward spiral of hopelessness and despair.
There are many more nuances to both of these types of addictions that are incredibly similar. On one final note, there is a tendency for all addictions to occur along with mental illness, such as depression. If someone is depressed, they may turn to substances or food for comfort. This often results in increased depression, and the cycle continues and so on.
Both types of addiction can be extremely harmful. They often result in a dramatic decrease in mental and physical health, as well as overall quality of life.
It is important to remember that addictions such as these are not due to a lack of willpower. They occur as a result of how the human and animal brain is wired (addiction is found in animals, too) and are influenced by social and environmental factors. No addict has a moral weakness by virtue of being an addict. It’s a commonly occurring disease of the mind that deserves to be treated as such.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology