Food Can Be Addictive, Leading Drug Expert Says

by Bob Curley on April 6, 2012

Food can be just as addictive as alcohol or other drugs, according to the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Time reported April 5 that NIDA director Nora Volkow, M.D., said that compulsive overeating and drug addiction both lead to dysfunction in areas of the brain that rely on the neurotransmitter dopamine. The resulting loss of dopamine D2 receptors leads to diminished self-control and enjoyment from eating or taking drugs.

Volkow said that unlike with drugs, however, the body and brain can self-regulate by sending signals to the brain when the stomach is full. The bad news is that because the body’s food-regulation system is more complex, it’s harder to come up with effective anti-obesity drugs. Some researchers have looked at leptin, a hormone that is released by fat cells, which normally tells the brain to stop eating and may reduce activity in the D2 receptors. However, obese people can lose sensitivity to leptin.

The concept of food addiction remains controversial, Volkow acknowledged, because most people don’t compulsively seek food despite negative consequences. But neither do most people who use drugs, even highly addictive substances like cocaine, said Volkow. In fact, more Americans (34 percent of adults) are obese than the percentage of crack users who are considered addicted to the drug, so by that measure food could be considered more addictive.

(Photo © SteFou! via Flickr)