The blog Science of Eating Disorders recently had an interesting guest post on Binge Eating: When Should We Call It An “Addiction”?
I think they make a really great point re the difference between overeating and food addiction/binge eating. Unlike the former, where people may eat mindlessly or feel that they can’t turn down the cookies at the office or the dessert after dinner, with the latter (emphasis mine):
individuals often obsessively restrict their food intake and then later binge on high-calorie foods. Like drug addicts, these individuals spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing over food intake and hiding their behaviors from others. They skip out on social interactions to engage in their behaviors.
Furthermore, the way these individuals over-consume food is not reflective of “mindless overeating,” just because tasty food is available at their fingertips; it is ravenous, compulsory, and abnormal. Sometimes food is even tossed away as an attempt to avoid further binge intake, and then subsequently consumed straight out of the trashcan when the individual “gives in” to the behavior.
It seem very likely that the behavior between so-called “normal” eating and addiction is a continuum and it’s not necessarily as simple as whether one “eats out of the trash” or not. But I don’t really understand people scoffing at the idea that people can be addicted to food because their experience is only with theirs or others in the “mindless overeating” group.
What’s more interesting to me in this post, though, is the discussion of deprivation’s potential role in the development of this type of disordered eating. The author of the post suggests that it is the:
intermittent exposure to highly palatable, often sugary foods, often coupled with some compensatory food restriction and significant distress that results in food intake that can in any way be called “addictive”—not simple overconsumption of high-calorie foods. Both caloric restriction and intermittent sugar intake alter dopamine transmission in response to rewards, and intermittent—but not continuous—access to high-fat substances induces the typical “sawtooth” pattern of binge-restrict behavior in animals; reflective of human ED behaviors where individuals restrict food intake in between periodic episodes of binge eating.
Thus, perhaps it is the combination of these two behaviors, bingeing on fatty foods and subsequently attempting to restrict caloric intake, that produces an exaggerated response to food rewards and encourage compulsory food intake akin to compulsory drug intake.
It boggles the mind to contemplate the idea that this theory may have merit. Our war on obesity coupled with the 24/7 availability of hyperpalatable, highly processed food may well be a perfect breeding ground for overeating and potentially food addictions. Anecdotes aren’t “real” [TM] science, but as the poster child for BED *and* someone who started dieting at age 9, it rings scarily true for me.