For many people, the more sugar they eat the more they crave it. No matter how hard they try, they don’t seem to be able to get it under control. This can last a lifetime. And it’s not just sugar, either. Many other processed foods can set off the same response.
According to many experts, food addiction is a chronic disease. It’s exactly like other addictions, including cocaine (and other drugs), sex, nicotine, and even gambling.
This presentation by Dr Paul Earley explains how the brain is central to this addiction; I thought you might find the key points interesting.
The Addicted Brain
An old part of the brain known as the mesolimbic dopamine reward pathway is the centre of addiction behavior.
When we were hunter gatherers, this pathway helped ensure our survival. It was responsible for mediating things like fight or flight, food foraging and hunger, thirst, childbearing, and self-protection.
And though we all have it, not everyone becomes addicted.
According to Dr Earley, we don’t fully understand why some people are more susceptible to addiction than others. But we do have a good understanding of how the brain kicks off the addiction.
All addictive substances, including sugar, boost the dopamine levels in the mesolimbic reward system. This leads to a cascade of events:
1. The immediate effect is pleasure. This was thought to drive the addiction, but these days it’s seen as just a side-effect.
2. The addiction is driven by something called signal salience. The salience network is a collection of regions of the brain that determine which stimuli are deserving of our attention.
3. This network activates certain areas of the brain to do a number of things:
- It consolidates the memory of the event. As Dr Earley puts it, “Oh my God, I need to remember this!” In survival terms, those who remembered pleasurable events (like finding food and water or having sex) repeated them and were therefore more likely to survive.
- It gives the addictive behavior more attention and changes motivational circuits. When the network gives something importance, you want to do it again.
- Inhibitory control over this behavior is turned down, and it becomes more unconscious and automated. This likely results in more impulsive behaviour and decision making.
These signals get hard-wired into the brain, much like riding a bike. Once you learn how to do it, that’s it. Decades later, you still know how to ride a bike.
After watching this presentation and others, I realise that many of my assumptions about food addiction have been wrong. I also see that the path to recovery is not an easy one, even for something like sugar, which we’ve regarded as benign.
If you’re interested in learning more about food addiction and resources, check out the full presentation and others on this YouTube channel. You can even check out their 2022 conference presentations.