Food Addiction (Part II) - Can food be an addiction?

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Food Addiction or Compulsion

In the first part of this trilogy of blogs, we wanted to let you know how addiction was currently defined before presenting research that suggests that, even within this definition, it is valid to accept food as an addiction. Back in 2004, Science magazine published a study that suggested that signs of withdrawal and tolerance are evidenced with food consumption. They state that individuals manifesting signs of food addiction have to consume larger amounts of foods to feel satiated as their addiction progresses. These individuals also display a high incidence of distress and dysphoria after not consuming the same amount of food, or after a period of dieting. This is particularly evident with more palatable foods, which are high in fat and sugar. Just as a reminder, lets quickly say that addiction is a cluster of physiological, cognitive, and behavioral symptoms. Like this study, many others have studied the similarities between mechanism involved in drug addiction and their proposed idea of food addiction.

Physiological Withdrawal: Food Addiction

Particularly, there seems to be an inclination to find physiological similarities. In 2007, The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale presented provocative research findings proposing that use and withdrawal patterns with sugar are suggestive of classic drug abuse. Research has shown that the mesolimbic pathway, which is also known as the reward circuitry of the brain, is similarly activated with food and drug intake. Particularly, they have looked at the important role that the neurotransmitter, dopamine, plays in the reward system related to food and drug intake as well as in the process of motivation to consume both of these substances.

Compulsive Eating and Addiction

This past July, The Committee on the Neurobiology of Addictive Disorders presented a study that suggested that binge or compulsive eating shares characteristics with drug addiction; especially when looking at the downregulation of the dopaminergic reward circuit. This means that following the intermittent intake of the large amounts of palatable foods present in binge eating; there will be a decreased sensitivity of the dopamine reward circuit. This study seems to imply that, as with drug addiction, prolonged binge eating may cause long-term neuroadaptations in the brain reward circuit. They propose that this will ultimately produce depressive and anxious responses when food is not available. This will cause individuals to feel the need to ingest food again; this initiates a cycle such as the one evidenced in drug addiction.


Abelson, P & Kennedy, D. (2004). The obesity epidemic. Science, 4, 304.

Parylak, S.L., Koob, G.F & Zorrilla, E.P. (2011). The dark side of food addiction. Journal of Physiological Behavior, 104, 146-156.

The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. (2007). Conference on Eating and Dependence.