April 11th, 2011
Food Addiction? Beware of Advertising
"Food Addiction Works Like Drug Addiction In The Brain,” proclaims a recent health headline. The crux of this study is that simply the visuals of an attractive food can trigger the same reward circuitry in the brain for a “food addict” as cocaine does for a drug addict.
Eating disorders are behavioral but also biological. It is about control as much as lack of control, with a complex mix of neurotransmitters and hormones, behavior-driving psychology, and cultural influences at play. Media exposure is also a factor to consider. We are inundated by images of male and female ideals—usually six-packed and size zero, respectively, alongside image after image of fast and convenience foods and other unhealthier picks in unhealthy quantities.
Science has taught us that certain eating disorders are similar to other types of addictions. Psychology shows us that behaviors can be changed by refocusing thought patterns. Sociology reveals interconnections that can be helpful or harmful in our quest for health and happiness.
This new research published online in the Archives of General Psychiatry tells us that compulsive eaters demonstrate brain activity that is similar to drug and alcohol addicts, with certain triggers or “food cues” activating the brain’s reward centers. Seeing a cue, say a chocolate milkshake, can send the brain into a tailspin. Ever notice how after you see a commercial for something like that while watching your evening shows, you start to need something sweet/salty/rich/etc?
Addictions can consume. What makes eating disorders arguably more difficult to manage than other addictions such as alcohol, nicotine, or other drug addiction: We can’t eliminate the source of our trigger.
We must confront our addictions daily—actually, several times a day. We simply cannot live without confronting our triggers on a regular basis; for those who have battled or are in battle with an eating disorder, you know that each meal or snack (and even the thought of each meal and snack) can send you spiraling out of control. So why make it harder than it already is? Are there things we are doing that are creating more of a challenge than necessary?
In the new study, interestingly, the actual consumption of the trigger food (say, that chocolate milkshake) was linked to less reward center activation—presumably because the brain has become overwhelmed and has shut down these centers. This could have the added effect of causing us to eat more, like those science rats who keep pressing the lever even though nothing is coming out after the first reward, striving to get those pleasure centers activated (remember: “If a little is good, a lot should be even better,” thinks the addict).
We could be getting triggered by advertising to crave a certain food, only to set ourselves up for further abuse of our own bodies.