When asked about addiction most would immediately think about drug abuse, but it is possible for people to get addicted to things other than drugs and it happens more commonly than a lot of people would think. The main other example of addiction is addiction to junk foods, such as foods with high fat or sugar levels that can be detrimental to health, but many would not see an addiction to unhealthy food as an actual addiction.
Naturally as humans we are hardwired to eat, what we eat however, is down to our own personal choice. When we eat dopamine is released into a part of the brain called the reward system which tells our brain that we have done something good, something that will benefit our body and the brain interprets this small rush of dopamine as pleasure which influences us into wanting to perform the action again. The issue with this comes with foods that cause the release of an unnaturally high amount of dopamine, this is because the brain reacts to this flood of dopamine by assessing it as a higher amount of pleasure, as something even better than before and promotes the idea of doing it more than eating average foods.Unfortunately foods that induce this higher kind of dopamine rush are usually foods that contain high amounts of sugar. This is incredibly similar to drug use in the sense that drugs also promote this ‘feel good’ reaction from the brain creating the uncontrollable need that many drug users or addicts experience of wanting to experience that feeling again by recreating their activity.
When this rush of dopamine has been experienced once the brain then begins to crave it, these cravings can easily be confused with hunger but it is important to understand that cravings and hunger are not at all the same. Hunger is created due to the body's needs to survive, when it requires food for the purpose of regaining nutrients and energy, whereas cravings are created when the brain expects a reward, meaning that cravings can be experienced even when a person is not particularly hungry or malnourished. These kinds of cravings bear a resemblance to drug abuse or other addictive behaviours such as smoking, as the meaningless cravings are impulsive and obsessive, created by the brain as a form of want rather than need.
Once the brain has created these cravings enough times and has been satisfied rather than ignored the brain will start reacting to the increased levels of dopamine it is creating in an attempt to keep the balance within the brain, and this is where building up a tolerance to something comes in. The brain becomes used to dealing with and levelling out the higher levels of dopamine but cutting off the amount of receptors for it, meaning that the person may not feel the ‘pleasure’ effects of feeding their cravings as easily or as quickly as they did before, leading to them eating more of these kinds of things to reach their usually expected reaction to eating them.The brain starts reducing its number of dopamine receptors in order to keep things balanced. This also reflects into common knowledge on drug abuse, as it is a well known fact that regular drug users eventually build up a similar tolerance to their chosen drug and eventually have to take more and more of it to reach the same high or simply to satisfy their craving and need for it due to the over-stimulation they were previously providing their brain with.
Once this point is reached it is well into the zone of addiction, this can be shown if the person tries to cut out the foods that are feeding their cravings, as this is where withdrawal symptoms usually occur. Meaning that they will get negative side effects from cutting out that certain food or substance, key examples are caffeine withdrawals that induce headaches and irritability and nicotine withdrawals that induce effects such as anger and irritability. This is also incredibly similar to drug addiction as drug addicts will also suffer severe symptoms when removing themselves from a substance, and is part of the reason treatments for substances such as heroin which has a highly difficult withdrawal process involve substitutes for the drug to get the body used to not having the drug before coming off everything completely.
As well as negative and overwhelming effects on the brain, junk foods such as those high in sugar are bad for our bodies and it is a well known fact. This is because they contain a huge amount of unnatural and harmful ingredients and hardly any of the nutrients, fibre or protein we actually need. Despite this knowledge however people who have developed an addiction to unhealthy food will eat it regardless. The influence of the brain's reward system is the culprit for this, as it makes the body feel as if it needs this intake of bad food to keep itself running when it does not. Unfortunately this is another common feature in drug abuse, as many drug users are aware of the harm these substances are doing to their body, but their brains addiction to the substance is overriding, controlling their instincts resulting in them using drugs regardless.
Overall food addiction is incredibly similar to drug addiction and should not be overlooked, such as any other kind of addiction a person may develop. The general definition of an addiction is that it is a disease which is created by dysfunction of the brain reward or other system of the brain that drives a person to pursue reward and/or relief by substance use or behavioural changes. Although drug addiction is a huge problem people's understanding of it can be utilised to help understanding of less common or less publicised addictions that many people struggle with in their daily lives.