The concept of food addiction refers to addiction-like behaviors that can develop in association with eating the foods we love. People who meet the criteria for food addiction are at an increased risk for weight gain and chronic disease. It’s not surprising that a high proportion of individuals with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) also have food addiction issues.
Eating delicious food has both positive reinforcing, pleasurable effects and negative reinforcing, “comforting” effects that we often use to cope with stress. When we overdo it, repeated intake of great-tasting food can amplify our brain stress circuitry and downregulate brain reward pathways. That means that continued intake becomes necessary to prevent negative emotional states via negative reinforcement. Stress, anxiety and depressed mood have shown high comorbidity with and the potential to trigger bouts of addiction-like eating behavior in humans.
In drug addiction, the transition from casual drug use to dependence has been linked to a shift away from positive reinforcement and towards negative reinforcement. That is, drugs ultimately are relied on to prevent or relieve negative states that otherwise result from drug withdrawal or from adverse environmental circumstances, like stress. Recent studies have suggested that this “dark side” shift is also key in the development of food addiction.
When we try to diet, our comfort food is no longer available. As a result, we can experience emotional and physical signs of withdrawal. This prompts compulsive seeking of tasty food despite the consequences – our diet fails and we don’t lose weight. We experience the same phases of the chronic, relapsing disorder of addiction: a binge intoxication phase driven by the rewarding properties of the drug, a withdrawal phase accompanied by a negative emotional state as the reward wears off, and a preoccupation and anticipation phase that precedes renewed drug intake.
Studies of human binge eaters – people with food addiction –show that stress, anxiety ,and depression can occur when we consume food for its negative reinforcing or comforting effects. Seeking help for these disorders should include a plan for treating mental health disorders concurrently with food addiction.