Food Addiction: National Expert Likens Overeating to Drug Addiction

Could cheeseburgers and candy be as addicting as crack and heroin? If one person eats a whole gallon of ice cream in one sitting while another binges on an entire bottle of tequila, is it possible that something very similar is going on in both of their brains?

According to the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the answer is yes. Though the idea of food addiction is controversial and rejected by some addiction experts, thinking about overeating in terms of drug addiction could be a useful mental tool for weight loss. Help for overeating in the future may come in the form of medications targeting the areas of the brain that control temptation, and the similarities between food and drug addiction could help develop treatments for sufferers of both.

For most of us, there’s a very clear line between eating too much and taking mind-altering substances. Alcohol and most drugs are viewed as addictive and dangerous while even junk food, though obviously unhealthy, is rarely vilified in such a way.

Yet experts make the case that drug addiction and food addiction are very similar animals. They compare the number of overweight Americans—a full two-thirds of the population, with 34% of adults over 20 being classified as obese—to the number of crack and heroin users who become addicted, a mere 20 percent. Given these startling figures and the numerous dangers of living with obesity, it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine food as habit-forming, dangerously inviting stuff.

Of course, given that food is something every human needs to survive, it could be said that all of us are food addicts. But think of that pie in your fridge that calls to you even when you’re full, the leftover Easter candy that begs you to eat just one more piece. Though it may seem a bit silly to compare these mundane enticements to those of a junkie in withdrawal, food, especially the food that is worst for us, frequently tempts us to ignore our better judgment.