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Contrasts Between Food Addiction and Drug Addiction

Shared Systems in Food and Drug AddictionFood addiction continues to be a slippery concept, but one that has tremendous popular appeal. Some individuals with obesity are steadfast in their convictions that addiction to particular foods plays the a key role in their in their condition. However, objective evidence for addictive disorders in obesity has been elusive. In Progress in Brain Research, Erica Schulte and colleagues identify three shared neural systems between the phenomenon of addictive eating and classic models of addiction:

  1. Reward dysfunction. Foods that people identify as addictive have been shown to activate some of the same dopamine reward pathways in the brain that are involved in motivation and craving for addictive drugs.
  2. Impulsivity. As with drug addiction, people who describe themselves as addicted to certain foods display impulsive behavior that overwhelms their rational understanding of their own best interests.
  3. Emotion dysregulation. Strong emotional states serve to trigger both drug use and impulsive consumption of addictive foods.

But beyond these shared systems, they also note (for the umpteenth time) that the concept of food addiction differs from drug addiction in important ways:

  1. Necessity of food. Drugs of abuse are not necessary for survival. Food is. The argument that highly processed foods are addictive substances that differ from unprocessed foods might be undermined by addictive consumption of unprocessed foods.
  2. Addictive substance & dose. Addictive drugs are distinct, pure substances with a specific dose that triggers addiction. Food substances have yet to be so specifically defined as such.
  3. Withdrawal. Though individuals who describe themselves as food-addicted may experience some effects of withdrawal from the foods they crave, the severe withdrawal symptoms of drug addiction are not experienced.

So for now, the concept of food addiction lives on as a construct that is useful for people who experience it and for clinicians who care for them. For researchers, it remains a subject for further investigation, with important similarities to and differences from drug addiction.

Click here for the review by Schulte et al.

Crave Cupcakes, photograph © Brian Ng / flickr

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November 15, 2015

4 Responses to “Contrasts Between Food Addiction and Drug Addiction”

  1. November 15, 2015 at 8:08 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    Given that I’m too lazy to actually do my own research, I’ll just pose the question to you, Ted, and your readers: is there any evidence of neuroadaptation from consumption of food? I would suspect that that is very unlikely and that your #2 above (Addictive Substance & Dose) is the core reason.

    I just re-read this site from NIDA–pretty cool:


  2. November 17, 2015 at 7:54 am, Allen Browne said:

    This is a question my fellow pediatric weight management colleagues and I face a lot. This is a big help and worth sharing – and I will!

    • November 17, 2015 at 11:24 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Allen!