Is there any difference between obsessive eating and drug addiction? The answer, as far as brain circuitry is concerned, is no. Both problems are about reward circuitry in the brain gone awry. Pleasure is required for survival and pleasure is required for addiction – a conundrum of the highest order magnitude.
The latest study to nail down the addictive nature of food comes from The Scripps Research Institute. This animal research looked at multiple aspects of the problem and demonstrated the clear link between compulsive eating and addiction.

First, the researchers showed that rats allowed extended access to high-fat flavorful food rapidly gained weight. As the rats gained weight their brain circuitry changed so that the threshold of reward-related pleasure was elevated. This meant they had to eat more to attain the reward satisfaction or pleasure-related aspect of fullness. These changes in brain circuitry are identical to those that occur in heroin addiction.
Another group of rats was given partial access to the high fat food (1 hour per day) and required to eat normal food at other times. These rats shifted from a normal pattern of consumption to one of binge eating, wherein 66% of their daily calories occurred on the high fat junk food. Not unlike humans who try to be good most of the day and then over-consume at one large high fat meal.

Interestingly, when the rats were deprived of high fat food they wouldn’t eat – meaning there was not enough pleasure in eating regular food. They actually lost weight, not unlike the person who goes on a diet of normal food after an extended period of excessive eating. The million dollar question for humans is: Can they change the addictive pattern and stay on a good eating plan or will the addictive brain circuitry be too much and cause a relapse to excess food consumption on a regular basis?

The researchers went on to demonstrate that as high fat consumption and weight gain occurred, the expression of dopamine receptors declined. This created a hypo state of dopamine activity that requires excessive stimulation (food or drugs) to get a pleasure fix and feel satisfied.

The researchers then showed that electric shock conditioning would not prevent the rats from eating the high fat food. This meant that their consumption was insensitive to aversive environmental cues predicting adversity. This behavior and nerve wiring is identical to compulsive cocaine-taking seen in rats with a history of extended access to the drug.

Many overweight and obese individuals continue to overeat despite the well known negative health consequences, not to mention their physical appearance. Such individuals typically desire to eat less food but constantly consume more food than they need. This type of eating pattern is disconnected from the pain of the activity, the hallmark of drug addiction.

Using nutrition to build new brain circuitry, consistent exercise, working with your hands, improved stress management, and a gargantuan amount of will power is the only way out of this mess. It will take one month of concerted effort to break the craving pattern and eternal vigilance to prevent a relapse. Unlike drugs and alcohol, pleasure from food is required for survival – so learn to experience normal pleasure and not addictive excess.

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View the fully referenced article: The Addictive Nature of Compulsive Eating