The next time you wonder why you can't get that intense craving for steak fries and a large chocolate milkshake out of your head, ask yourself -- are you addicted? Some people say yes.
Food can potentially be more addictive than cocaine.
Although the theory remains controversial, according to the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Nora Volkow, there are striking similarities in how food and drugs affect the pleasure areas of the brain. In a lecture at Rockefeller University, she pointed out that 34% of adults over the age of 20 are obese and that the number of drug users who are addicted to food is much less than that -- 20%.
According to a recent Time article, two-thirds of Americans clearly have significant difficulties controlling their food intake. Measured by the proportion of those who behave in health-risking ways with each substance, food can actually be considered more addictive than crack.
As with drugs, a serious addiction to food can throw the body into a state of hormonal imbalance. People who are obese are less sensitive to leptin, the hormone that controls appetite, and lose the natural feedback mechanism that tells them when they are full. Likewise, there is some evidence that leptin plays a role in substance addictions.
"In animal models, we know that leptin modifies the rewarding effects of alcohol and possibly cocaine," Volkow told Time.
Skeptics have dismissed food as a possible source of addiction because it doesn't lead to people compulsively seeking food despite negative consequences. But this isn't the first time food has been associated with druglike effects. A recent study published by the Archives of General Psychiatry concluded that that are similar patterns of neural activation in both addictive-like eating behavior and substance dependence.
The science of addiction, however, is far from simple. Regulation of food intake is much more complex than drug use. There are variations in levels of desire for food and levels of the ability to control that desire. But despite the polarity, the debate provides insight on treatment options and how drugs that are used to treat obesity can potentially help those with drug addictions.
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