The next time someone jokes that something tastes so good, it’s addictive, there might be some truth to that statement. The controversial idea of food addiction shouldn’t be dismissed so easily, argues scientist Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Some researchers and health professionals reject food as a potential source of addiction because not everyone who picks up a chocolate bar or a box of donuts becomes addicted. However, with two-thirds of U.S. adults overweight or obese, Americans clearly have difficulty controlling their food intake. Volkow argues that, in fact, the number of drug users who become addicted is actually much less than this—20 percent. This makes food even more problematic for people. There are also similarities in how food and drugs affect the self-control and pleasure areas of the brain. Obesity and drug addiction both cause a reduction in the number of dopamine D2 receptors. This makes people more likely to give into temptation, and also leads to a reduced enjoyment of the drugs or food over time. Drugs were always considered highly addictive because of the outsized response that happens in the brain. You get a bigger jump in dopamine levels—the “high”—than seen with either food or sex. Volkow says that food can throw the body into a similar state of imbalance. Obese people are less sensitive to leptin, the hormone that controls appetite. They then lose the natural feedback mechanism that tells them when they are full. With drugs, however, the body doesn’t have a similar “full” signal. While the debate over whether food addiction is real is likely to continue, the similarities with substance abuse may provide treatment options. Drugs that are used to treat obesity may have benefit for those suffering with drug addiction, and the other way around.
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