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Science Explains the Truth about Addiction

A debate about which behaviors are addictive and which aren’t has raged on for decades. Can food be addictive? Here’s the latest on what science thinks about addiction. (“Science Says: What makes something truly addictive?” by Lindsey Tanner, Sarasota Herald Tribune, 6/22/18, page A3, retrieved 6/23/18)

Tanner says that “The strict definition of addiction refers to a disease resulting from changes in brain chemistry caused by compulsive use of drugs or alcohol. The definition includes excessive use that damages health, relationships, jobs and other parts of normal life.” According to UCLA psychiatrist, Dr. Walter Ling, it is ‘a disease of extreme behavior. Any behavior carried to an extreme that consumes you and keeps you from doing what you should be doing becomes an addiction as far as life is concerned.”

Dr. Andrew Saxon, chairman of the American Psychiatric Association’s addiction psychiatry council, deems drugs addictive because they over-activate “the brain’s reward circuit. For example, “…narcotic drugs can flood the brain with dopamine, encouraging repeated use…”

“The World Health Organization recognizes caffeine ‘dependence’ as a disorder; the American Psychiatric Association does not.” Beyond drugs and alcohol, “The only behavior classified as an addiction in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual is compulsive gambling”…The manual doesn’t include sex addiction because there’s little evidence that compulsive sexual behavior has similar effects on the brain” as those caused by drugs or alcohol.

And, finally, says University of Michigan physician and researcher on teens and digital technology Dr. Ellen Selkie, “’The term addiction is tossed around pretty commonly, like  chocoholic or saying you’re addicted to reality TV.” She adds that true addiction “means an inability to control use ‘to the point where you’re failing at life.’”

I’ve long been of the opinion that food is not addictive and refer you back to blogs in my archives to read more on the subject. I’ve come to this conclusion by reading what experts have to say, but have no attachment to an outcome one way or the other. My belief is that foods may certainly affect the brain (that is, release dopamine) in ways that lead to habituation. I encourage you to consider what the implications are for you in terms of changing your eating behavior if you believe and tell yourself that food is addictive. I’ve never observed that this is a helpful viewpoint, and have often noticed that thinking of as addictive makes it more difficult to become a “normal” eater.

Best,

Karen

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