I’m sure many people can relate to the feeling of craving more of the delicious cinnamon bun they have just finished, or wanting one more pig in blanket at the christmas party, perhaps just one more glass of wine? Why is it that so many of us struggle to control our food intake? With 2/3s of the United States of America being classed as overweight or obese, can we really put it down to pure greed? In a time where food is so cheap and accessible with an industry tailored to make us constantly want more it is little surprise that people struggle with self control.

The word ‘addiction’ is often related to drugs or alcohol. People look down on addicts as inferior to themselves, unable to control their desires, compulsively seeking their next high. What makes compulsive overeating any different? Scientists at Yale have been looking into the science of food addiction and have found that people with symptoms of food addiction show increased brain activity in those areas associated with pleasure when shown pictures of desirable food and reduced activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, associated with our feelings of self control. These findings are extremely similar to those found in the study of cocaine addiction.

Teenagers are particularly susceptible to addiction as brain areas involved in impulse control and decision making are still developing and are therefore easily malleable.

Dopamine is the brains ‘happy chemical’, it is increased with feelings of happiness & pleasure. In drug addiction it is extensively documented that stimulators such as cocaine and amphetamines effect our dopamine system and overstimulation causes down regulation of receptors meaning more and more dopamine is needed to give us the same response. So more and more drug is consumed to get the same feeling of euphoria. Even the strongest-willed people may have a hard time overcoming the chemical imbalance created with repetitive drug use and whilst the initial behaviour may be one of pleasure seeking, ultimately the brains desire for the drug will overtake common sense and normal needs will be replaced with a need for more.

“In all of my years as a physician, I have never ever met a person who chose to be an addict, nor have I ever met anyone who chose to be obese. So, imagine what it must be like to be unable to stop doing something when you want to; no matter how hard you try, you give in, again and again. And then you hate yourself for it.” Dr Nora Volkow

Dopamine is released in response to many things, not just illegal substances, one of those things is the sight and smell of food. The primitive human brain evolved in hunter gather style, when food was a reward for braving the dangers of the hunt. We have not yet adapted to the modern reality of accessibility where we are constantly surrounded by cheap goods to tempt our tastebuds. Whilst we are aware of the damage to our health involved with obesity our mechanism of self control are commonly unable to overcome to pleasure we feel from eating. Overindulgence in food causes similar changes to our dopamine system, down regulating receptors, causing us to need more to reach the same level of pleasure we previously experienced. In addition, researchers of obesity have found that the brain looses its sensitivity to leptin, the chemical that tells us we are full thus removing the feedback mechanism from the brain telling us to stop.


Nora Volkow, world famous for her research into the field ,describes the brains response to pleasurable looking food in her TEDmed talk. An internal fight to give in to the craving now despite the feelings of guilt that will be sure to follow later, she has shown the reward circuit in the brain of obese people is similar to that of people addicted to cocaine except they receive their dopamine surge from fattening food instead. In these subjects, food is no longer seen as a reward but it is used to relieve distress.

It is important we resist the ‘now’ urge to eat that delicious brownie or portion of fries and develop our ability to find pleasure in the ‘later’ option before we loose the choice altogether.

We may be quick to criticise people who fall victim to drug or alcohol addiction or complain about the financial implication on our healthcare systems and are quick to forget the impact obesity has when you look at statistics for heart disease and diabetes to name only a few of the hundreds of conditions effected by obesity.

“The best predictors of quality of life and longevity involve the amount of fat stored in people’s bodies — and more is not better.” Dr Eric Braverman

Maybe we should spend more time on treating the addiction, supporting recovery and educating future generations on the dangers of overindulgence and methods of self restraint creating a healthy and productive environment because after all, no one wants to grow up to be an addict.

Watch Nora’s full TEDMED talk:

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