By Dr Karen Coates
Are you addicted to food?
I mean really addicted, in the medical sense.
Having a problem controlling the impulse to over eat or binge on your favourite chocolate biscuits or potato chips?
Can’t stop at one?
New evidence out of the University of Georgia in the USA says you might belong to a subgroup of people for whom food is as addictive as cocaine, nicotine and alcohol.
To understand how this can happen we needed to look at the roles of different areas in the brain.
The common sense, logical impulse control part is the prefrontal cortex (the most evolved part of the human brain).
When this guy is in the driver’s seat, resisting that chocolate filled donut or plate of hot crispy French fries is a piece of cake (please excuse the pun).
But in some people there is a driver switch that gives the decision-making job to a more primitive area of the brain, a driver switch with dire consequences – to the Pleasure Centre, deep in the part of the brain known as the Hippocampus.
The hippocampus is designed as a primitive over ride switch meant to stop you from over analyzing in life threatening situations – it comes into play at times of high stress. Designed for action, not diplomacy.
Sugar, fat and certain food additives (MSG is a classic ‘can’t stop at one’) can stimulate the Pleasure Centre to release dopamine. In some, this pleasure/reward/craving hormone overwhelms and controls the sensible centre creating a long term impulse control problem like that seen in more classical addictions to drugs.
Trouble is, food is legal, sugar is cheap and in unlimited supply and all of it is socially acceptable, making this the perfect storm of addiction.
The stress hormone cortisol is one of those override hormones that can trigger the change in driver control. So when we look at achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, stress management is a priority, even before the calorie counting and portion control begins.
Not everyone who drinks heavily is an alcoholic and not everyone who struggles with weight has a food addiction. But let’s be honest about the possibility and explore options for managing weight if you suspect this may be secretly playing a role in stopping you from achieving the healthy future you deserve.