Junk food can be found almost anywhere today. Unfortunately, the same goes for abusive drugs as well. You must have heard that many people claim that junk foods and sugar are as addictive as drugs. How much truth is there in this saying? After all, there are so many myths around related to nutrition, weight loss, and addiction, that it becomes difficult to understand what is the truth. But the fact remains that there are some disturbing similarities between junk food, sugar, and abusive drugs. Read on to find out what these similarities are.
Similarities Between Junk Food, Sugar and Abusive Drug Addiction
Role of Dopamine in Both Junk Foods, Sugar and Drugs
Eating is essential for our survival. When we have food, the hormone dopamine gets released in a part of the brain that is known as the reward system.(1) The brain hormone dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for pleasure, motivation and learning in the body. Once dopamine is released, the brain receives the ‘pleasure’ signal, which changes the programming in the brain to make us feel pleasure or happy.
This is one of the ways in which the brain motivates us to keep working towards our goals. Without dopamine, our lives would be very unhappy and miserable.
However, with the advancements of technology, there are many things today that can flood our brain with dopamine. These levels of dopamine are much more than our brain is used to, which can lead to the brain pathways, getting overwhelmed by the intense level of dopamine.(2)
For example, when people take cocaine, it immediately floods the brain with dopamine. This causes the brain to change its programming, ultimately resulting in wanting more and more cocaine to feel happy at that same level.(3)
However, in a world full of highly processed junk foods and sugary foods, studies have found that sugar and processed junk foods both have the same effect as cocaine or other abusive drugs on the brain and the release of dopamine.(4)
Sugar and junk foods can be referred to as ‘superstimuli,’ which flood the brain with so much dopamine that we feel unsatisfied with regular food afterward.(5)
This is not just an assumption made by doctors. The fact that sugars and processed foods function like abusive drugs and have the same effect on our brain as cocaine and other drugs has been proven in numerous studies. These studies found that sugar and junk foods end up flooding the reward center of the brain with dopamine. These foods especially affect an area in the brain known as nucleus accumbens, which is known to play a huge role in addiction.(6) This region is located in the basal forebrain and there is a nucleus accumbens present in each hemisphere of the brain.(7)
Sugar is also said to have the same effect on opioid pathways in the brain.(8) The opioid pathways are the same brain system that is manipulated by the intake of drugs like morphine and heroin.(9)
This is the reason why a regular intake of highly processed junk foods and sugary foods can make some people lose control over how much of the foods they are having. Similar to drugs of abuse, these foods end up ‘hijacking’ the brain’s pleasure pathways, making the body want more and more of the same sensation.
Sugary and Junk Foods Lead to Cravings
We are all well versed in those midnight cravings for having sugary foods or junk foods. While most people tend to confuse cravings as feelings of hunger, the two are not at all the same thing.
While hunger is caused by many physiological signals that are dependent on the body’s need for nutrients and energy, cravings are have nothing to do with fulfilling the body’s need for energy and nutrients.(10)
Cravings again satisfy the brain’s reward center.(11) It can be said, thus, that the brain drives your body towards this opioid or dopamine signal, which is why you feel a craving to have junk or sugary foods.(12)
Cravings for junk foods are the same as cravings for drugs of abuse, cigarettes, alcohol, and other addictive items. The thought processes and obsessive nature behind both types of cravings have been found to be identical.
Identical Biological Response in the Brain with Junk Foods and Drugs
Researchers use devices known as functional MRI scanners to track the changes taking place in blood flow to certain areas in the brain. Blood flow is directly linked to the activation of particular neurons. Due to this, researchers can use functional MRI scanners to measure which parts of the brain are getting activated.
Using functional MRI scanners, researchers have found that craving for both junk food and drugs of abuse light up or activate the same part of the brain.(13) In fact, one of these animal studies even found that rats can also become addicted to having certain foods. The studies also found that similar to drug-addicts, the brain may also predispose obese people to seek food as a reward.(14)
Same Tolerance Development in Junk Foods and Drugs of Abuse
When we eat sugary and highly processed junk foods, our brain gets flooded with dopamine. In order to counteract this, a protective mechanism gets triggered by the body, and the brain then automatically starts to reduce the number of dopamine receptors, it has to keep things under control and in balance.
This process, known as downregulation, helps us develop a tolerance to these foods.(15)
The same process is known to happen in the brains of drug addicts. This ultimately causes people to require larger and larger doses of the drugs as the brain keeps on decreasing the number of dopamine receptors.(16)(17)
The same evidence also applies to the intake of junk food and sugar. This is why people addicted to foods may end up eating huge amounts beyond their average consumption in a single sitting.(18)
At the same time, this also shows that food addicts of junk food may not even be deriving pleasure from eating because the brain has already reduced its dopamine receptors as a response to the constant overstimulation of dopamine.
When the brain’s reward system gets frequently overstimulated, it responds by cutting back on the number of dopamine receptors. This builds up tolerance in the body, which is one of the critical hallmarks of addiction and is common to food addiction as well.
Binging on Foods and Drugs
Once tolerance starts building up, drug addicts will start increasing their dosage. So when in the past they used to take just one pill, they will now resort to taking two pills to achieve the same high. Soon it will increase further.
Since due to tolerance, there are now lesser dopamine receptors in the brain, addicts will need to take a larger dose to reach the same level of euphoria.
This is also the reason why many people start binging on junk foods.
Binge eating is a common feature of food addiction and other eating disorders as well.(19) Animal studies have found that rats will binge on delicious junk foods in the same manner in which they binge on addictive drugs.(20)(21)
There is no real way to measure addiction. There is no specific blood test or urine test that can determine whether a person is addicted. Doctors diagnose addiction based on a pattern of behavioral symptoms. There is really no difference between food addiction and drug addiction. Only the substance of abuse changes, and the social consequences of food addiction are not as severe as drug addiction. Nevertheless, the biological responses in the brain are exactly the same for both types of addiction, and these similarities help prove the same.
- Di Chiara, G. and Bassareo, V., 2007. Reward system and addiction: what dopamine does and doesn’t do. Current opinion in pharmacology, 7(1), pp.69-76.
- Hernandez, L. and Hoebel, B.G., 1988. Food reward and cocaine increase extracellular dopamine in the nucleus accumbens as measured by microdialysis. Life sciences, 42(18), pp.1705-1712.
- Nestler, E.J., 2005. The neurobiology of cocaine addiction. Science & practice perspectives, 3(1), p.4.
- Olsen, C.M., 2011. Natural rewards, neuroplasticity, and non-drug addictions. Neuropharmacology, 61(7), pp.1109-1122.
- Rada, P., Avena, N.M. and Hoebel, B.G., 2005. Daily bingeing on sugar repeatedly releases dopamine in the accumbens shell. Neuroscience, 134(3), pp.737-744.
- Avena, N.M., Rada, P., Moise, N. and Hoebel, B.G., 2006. Sucrose sham feeding on a binge schedule releases accumbens dopamine repeatedly and eliminates the acetylcholine satiety response. Neuroscience, 139(3), pp.813-820.
- Di Chiara, G., Bassareo, V., Fenu, S., De Luca, M.A., Spina, L., Cadoni, C., Acquas, E., Carboni, E., Valentini, V. and Lecca, D., 2004. Dopamine and drug addiction: the nucleus accumbens shell connection. Neuropharmacology, 47, pp.227-241.
- Avena, N.M., Rada, P. and Hoebel, B.G., 2008. Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 32(1), pp.20-39.
- Colantuoni, C., Schwenker, J., McCarthy, J., Rada, P., Ladenheim, B., Cadet, J.L., Schwartz, G.J., Moran, T.H. and Hoebel, B.G., 2001. Excessive sugar intake alters binding to dopamine and mu-opioid receptors in the brain. Neuroreport, 12(16), pp.3549-3552.
- Guyenet, S.J. and Schwartz, M.W., 2012. Regulation of food intake, energy balance, and body fat mass: implications for the pathogenesis and treatment of obesity. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 97(3), pp.745-755.
- Mercer, M.E. and D HOLDER, M.A.R.K., 1997. Food cravings, endogenous opioid peptides, and food intake: a review. Appetite, 29(3), pp.325-352.
- Rogers, P.J. and Smit, H.J., 2000. Food craving and food “addiction”: a critical review of the evidence from a biopsychosocial perspective. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 66(1), pp.3-14.
- Blumenthal, D.M. and Gold, M.S., 2010. Neurobiology of food addiction. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, 13(4), pp.359-365.
- Wang, G.J., Volkow, N.D., Thanos, P.K. and Fowler, J.S., 2009. Imaging of brain dopamine pathways: implications for understanding obesity. Journal of addiction medicine, 3(1), p.8.
- Reichelt, A.C. and Rank, M.M., 2017. The impact of junk foods on the adolescent brain. Birth defects research, 109(20), pp.1649-1658.
- Volkow, N.D., Fowler, J.S., Wang, G.J., Hitzemann, R., Logan, J., Schlyer, D.J., Dewey, S.L. and Wolf, A.P., 1993. Decreased dopamine D2 receptor availability is associated with reduced frontal metabolism in cocaine abusers. Synapse, 14(2), pp.169-177.
- Stafford, K., Gomes, A.B., Shen, J. and Yoburn, B.C., 2001. μ-Opioid receptor downregulation contributes to opioid tolerance in vivo. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 69(1-2), pp.233-237.
- Spangler R, e. (2020). Opiate-like effects of sugar on gene expression in reward areas of the rat brain. – PubMed – NCBI. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15135221/ [Accessed 13 Feb. 2020].
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- Avena, N.M., 2010. The study of food addiction using animal models of binge eating. Appetite, 55(3), pp.734-737.
- Fullerton, D.T., Getto, C.J., Swift, W.J. and Carlson, I.H., 1985. Sugar, opioids and binge eating. Brain Research Bulletin, 14(6), pp.673-680.