With its validity as a medical ailment still disputed by many people, food addiction might go further than simply a breakdown in personal judgment as researchers point to the same psychological pathways as substance abuse.
Everything in moderation, so the old adage goes, proves to be a good rule of thumb when it comes to daily diets, but for some people there’s no holding back when it comes to that third or fourth helping. And, in some cases, the blame may rest on the state of mind.
According to a 2011 Yale University study that gained national attention, similar patterns of brain activity were implicated in addictive-like eating behaviors and substance dependence, when 48 women — ranging from lean to obese — participated in the study’s weight maintenance trial.
Researchers observed the women’s brain waves when enticed, then rewarded with a milkshake, finding craving centers of the brain activated while self-control centers lessening in activity, in a similar fashion to those people with a tendency for addiction.
In short, the same pleasure-coded neural messages in the brain that released dopamine levels in people struggling with substance abuse, would also fire in people believed to be compulsive eaters.
The more accustomed the body becomes to high dopamine levels, the less satisfaction comes from the release, said Christine Althoff, Celebrate Recovery ministry leader at Heartland Worship Center.
“So you actually find you eat more and more and more to try and get that same effect, or to normalize your brain in the way you did before,” she said.
“And over time it does actually begin to produce a very similar effect in your brain chemistry that alcohol does, so we see a lot of crossing. People who are into recovery for food addiction often go to alcohol and vice versa.”
Aside from the brain’s physiological functions, the emotional state of the mind can also play a large initial factor in the development of a food addiction.
“The common misnomer about food addiction is that it has to do with food, but generally, it doesn’t,” Althoff said.
“Food is part of it, but food addiction is more about body distortion, image distortion and it’s often about control. I can’t control the environment around me, but I can control what I eat.”
In a modern society where food and happiness are so closely related — be it hot dogs at a baseball game, potlucks for a church gathering or even sugary treats at the movies — children begin to associate food with comfort, Althoff said. So, over time, a person under stress or depressed might turn to food to balance their lives.
Recognizing the signs of food addiction prove to be difficult when it’s commonplace for people to be overweight, and it can be hard for people to make the relationship between simply over-eating and abusing food.
Parents should be aware of how much and what kinds of foods their children are eating, the kinds of comments their children make about their bodies, how much of a focus is placed on what they eat or don’t eat, and eating in secret or hiding wrappers.
Althoff, who also battled food addiction since a young girl, turned to ice cream as her treat of choice and hid wrappers in her bedside table until trash day. It wasn’t until she started encountering medical issues because of her weight that she turned her life around, and started her ministry at Heartland.
While it’s far more common to see women seeking help for possible food addictions, Althoff said her faith-based, 12-step program frequently gets questions about men’s groups, as well, and with help from friends and family, it’s possible to curb compulsive eating.
Call Will Pinkston, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8676.