Over the Limit and Around the Binge

Photo Illustration by Wakeelah Crutison

By Leigh Ann Henry

The word addiction brings to mind images of people popping prescription pills, injecting, inhaling or smoking dangerous substances. Most people don’t realize an addiction can be just as dangerous with a seemingly innocuous substance vital to a person’s survival: food.

According to the “Neural Correlates of Food Addiction” study published in the March 2011 Archives of General Psychiatry, food addictions activate the same areas of the brain as hard drug addictions.

This test is not the first to show correlation between food and drug addictions — researchers have been aware that both food and drugs trigger the release of dopamine. This study marks the first time the correlation between food and drug addictions has been researched among food addicts.

Some characteristics of food addicts include consuming spoiled or frozen foods or hiding food much like an alcoholic will sometimes hide alcohol, said Naomi Lippel, managing director of the world service office at the world headquarters of Overeaters Anonymous.

Also, food addicts may eat an acceptable amount when in public or with company, but binge eat at home until they’ve made themselves physically sick or pass out.

Overeaters Anonymous is a support system based out of New Mexico that addresses food and compulsive eating in the same way Alcoholics Anonymous seeks to aid an alcoholic in their recovery.

Overeaters Anonymous holds meetings in Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth and many other areas including Waco on Monday evenings.

One-third of the American adult population is considered obese, and obesity is the second-leading cause of preventable death, according to the study.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity falls second to smoking.

“Not everyone who comes to our meetings struggles with obesity; maybe due to their weight they become depressed and suicidal or a lot of them may binge eat and then throw it up or over-exercise to avoid becoming fat, but they still have a problem,” Lippel said.

Overeaters Anonymous hosts more than 6,700 meetings in 80 countries, Lippel said.

“It is a 12-step program designed to address physical issues and also the underlying cause of the eating problems,” she said.

Lippel draws similarities between the characteristics of food addicts with those of alcohol addicts. The abuse of food parallels that of drugs as well.

“Both drugs and food can be a compulsive behavior that people turn to when they’re under stress and pressure,” Dr. Don Arterburn, addictive behavior specialist at Baylor, said.

A team of researchers at Yale University, headed by doctoral student Ashley Gearhardt, the investigation completed in March 2011.

The study used the results of brain activity in 48 women of varying weights, from thin to obese, all diagnosed with a food addiction called binge eating.

Researchers used a functional magnetic resonance imaging to study the women’s brain activity.

Initially, they were simply asked to look at a chocolate milkshake and results from this test showed brain activity in the anterior cingulated cortex and medial orbitofrontal cortex, which are the same areas that have been accused of activity in an addicts urge to use hard drugs.

Researchers chose to use chocolate milkshakes because they are so high in fat and sugar.

There were several factors not addressed in the study, two of which were only women were tested and hunger was not taken into account.

There has been a recent rise of eating disorders in the male population, Arterburn said.

“Compulsive eating may induce obesity which comes with a whole host of issues like heart disease or diabetes. Perhaps being overweight they have run the gamut with every diet and not having luck become depressed or suicidal,” Lippel said.

During the study, the part of the brain that reacted to the milkshake lead researchers to the conclusion that food addiction is probably based on the idea of reward. By eating food, the addict is rewarded with a good taste.