If you are a binge eater, even if you have never seen the research, you know that there are similarities between food addiction and drug addiction. A recent study showing that you can get hooked on food the same way you can get hooked on drugs is detailed here: http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/04/04/food.drug.addiction.same.to.brain/index.html
This study found what binge eaters sense – that in the brains of some, certain foods can “elicit cravings and trigger responses similar to those caused by addictive drugs.”
I think binge eaters sometimes find comfort in studies like these which confirm their suspicions that their behavior is indeed addictive. “It’s my crack,” I’ve often heard binge eaters and even non-binge eaters say when talking about their favorite foods; and when studies come out that prove food can really be “like crack” to the body and brain, it validates what they already suspect to be true. I know when I was a binge eater, I certainly found comfort in thinking I was “like a drug addict.” But, why is this? Why did I find comfort in giving myself drug addict status?
I think likening myself to someone addicted to drugs made my problem more legitimate in my mind. It seemed all to weird, disgusting, and embarrassing to be hooked on enormous amounts of food; but if binge eating were indeed as addictive as shooting heroin, then maybe I wasn’t merely crazy or gluttonous after all. If I were like a drug addict, then maybe I really couldn’t control myself, I thought; and that’s precisely what the study linked above suggests.
The lead author of the study said that food addiction is “a combination of intense wanting coupled with disinhibition.” But, just because we can see “intense wanting” and “disinhibition” light up on a brain scan, does that mean the person has no control? I believe, even if there is some bungled brain circuitry causing someone to crave too much pleasurable food too intensely, and even if there is some under-activity in the executive areas of the brain that can inhibit actions; the person can still find ways to overcome those brain wiring issues. As humans, we can rise above our intense wanting for the greater good, and we can learn to inhibit.
While I think studies like the one above are useful, I think we have to be careful as a society not to give too many negative behaviors addiction status and not let differences in brain scans excuse too many actions. We could run into major problems if we eventually say that “intense wanting coupled with disinhibition” renders people helpless to control themselves. I can think of many wrong actions where this combination of intense wanting and disinhibition is present. Think of criminal offenses as extreme examples – shoplifting, robbery, rape; and moral dilemmas such as affairs, teen promiscuity, and pornography. Also, think of small children – every day they exhibit behaviors indicative of intense wanting coupled with disinhibition. If my daughter’s brain were to be scanned while she is shown a picture of a toy, I’m sure those same “intense wanting” areas would light up in her brain. Does this mean she must have the toy? It’s the same with the subjects in the study above. It’s not a food addict’s fault they want the pleasurable food more and in greater amounts than others do; but in most cases, despite the brain processes at work, they still remain capable of learning to say no.
To recover from binge eating, I had to believe I could indeed control myself – whether I labeled my problem an “addiction” or not. I had to dismiss the belief that “intense wanting” could make me do anything. Strong desire is nothing in and of itself – it cannot make one act, and I had a choice or whether or not to let it get the best of me. Once I stopped letting it get the best of me – in other words, once I learned to inhibit – the intense wanting subsided.