Chocolate is one of the pleasures on the tongue and brain.

Can you tell the difference between being hydrated and having a craving for food? How about the difference between hunger and habit? How many of us routinely have breakfast because we wake up, and it is something we have done all our lives?

Our brains are integral to our wants and needs, especially when it comes to food. Sometimes our anticipation of a particular food or meal becomes overwhelming. Is this normal? Is this borderline food addiction?

Food Addiction It seems that sugary food is more likely to create a craving – donuts, for example. Withdrawal from sugar can be difficult and painful. I remember the first time (back in the ’70s when I tried to give up sugar), and I got headaches, super cravings, periodic bouts of fatigue, and more.

After those sugar withdrawal symptoms, it was nearly a couple of decades before I made another attempt at giving up foods and drinks with high sugar content. I loved Coca-Cola and developed a need for it several times daily. I switched to diet colas, and it was not too bad. I could easily choose a diet ginger ale, diet coke, diet root beer, and others without having the full-sugar alternative.
Is compulsive eating related to sugar addiction?

Sugar Addiction Sugar is associated with many health problems – anxiety, stress, obesity, diabetes, and more. Some studies have shown that sugar can be as addictive as cocaine.
Addiction is defined slightly differently when comparing the definitions from the American Psychiatric Association, the English Oxford Dictionary, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the American Psychological Association, and more. Some call it a disorder; others call it a chronic disease. Physical and mental dependence is common in all.

Ever notice how difficult it is to not have seconds, especially at the ‘all you can eat’ places? Is that feeling tied to the cost of the meal or some internal desire for more food? In addition to food – please note there is no official definition of food addiction – the initial transition from everyday eating to opening the door and walking down the street to dependence starts with impaired control.

We start to eat a little more of something we like. Back in the ’60s, Lay’s Potato Chips had a commercial that stated – “Betcha can’t eat just one!” I have had those challenges where one does not satisfy. I eat a second or third or many. Yet, when the food is gone, my cravings disappear.

Social impairment follows impaired control when addiction to a substance, not necessarily food, causes people to miss work, school, and home obligations. Risky use, such as driving under the influence, is an escalation in the addition process.

We do not see social impairment or risky use associated with food addiction; therefore, it is challenging to classify food as addictive, yet the early processes resemble addiction.

Reward System Our brains recognize pain and pleasure. Rewards and reinforcing behavior or stimuli can lead to the early stages of addiction. Our brain release dopamine, a neurotransmitter, as part of the mesolimbic dopamine pathway.

The hippocampus, caudate, and insula regions of the brain release hormones in response to food cravings. The anticipation of food sometimes causes the brain to respond favorably. We feel good expecting the reward before it is manifested. Over time, the repetition can lead to a disorder that continually stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers.

The early stages of food addiction (I use that term loosely) are similar to opioid or other addictions (sex, gambling, substance, Internet, shopping, and more). However, the feelings are similar. The thought of eating stimulates our pleasure centers, and there is no longer a fine, clear line between use and abuse or misuse with non-food addictions.

We crave food to the point of misuse. Overweight can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and more. The difficulty separating ourselves from our food pleasures becomes unsurmountable at times – most of the time.

Eating Behaviors Cultural, social, family, economic, psychological, and other influences in our lives mold our eating habits. When stress enters our lives, eating can be a coping mechanism. Negative feelings of self-worth or self-esteem and tumble into a cycle of anxiety and eating that are nearly impossible to stop on our own.

Many eating disorders can interfere with our cognitive processes. Some people may binge eat with purging to prevent weight gain. Others may abuse diuretics and laxatives to manage weight. We think we are kicking the habit, but it comes back to that pleasure we get from food.

Yo-yo dieting leaves people weighing more after a diet than before they started. The negative feelings of failure reinforce negative self-worth, and the cycle continues. Success is forgotten, and we live our lives with unhealthy weight gains.

What is not seen in most of these scenarios is that nutritional balance is never achieved. Many mental health issues are caused by dietary imbalances. Health issues can arise from long-term nutrient deficiency that further compounds the problem of weight management.

We think by restricting our food intake that we can manage weight. Again, our brains are triggered by the sight, smell, or the thought of a favorite food. Cravings return, and another cycle of eating disorder from compulsive eating to bingeing to fasting to overconsumption and more.


Combine our brain’s pleasure center with the need to eat daily. The result can be a healthy life or a complex medical condition of obesity coupled with other underlying health issues. Having healthy foods around us to satisfy that frequent urge to eat is not always the answer. Our brains do not want healthy foods. We want sugar or fat or some other satisfying component to satiate us temporarily.

When I do a monthly extended fast (usually over 100 hours), I find that mentally preparing myself not to eat two to three days in advance makes my transition easier. The cravings I had the previous week when I drove by a fast-food place or smelled an aroma of something genuinely delicious disappear when I am focused on fasting.

After the fast, my cravings return, but not with the same intensity. As I get farther away from fasting, the level of intensity of my cravings returns to normal. Cravings are part of the chemical makeup of our bodies. The hormone ghrelin tells us to eat. Leptin, another hormone, tells our brains to stop eating. It is a delicate balance between wanting to eat and to stop eating.

Add cortisol, a stress hormone, into the mix, along with other nutrient deficiencies, and our ability to control our eating can be difficult. A failure one day can lead to failure the next day. A few days lead to weeks, and compulsive eating becomes the norm to satisfy our cravings.

For many people, it becomes a no-win situation. I wish I could solve this problem. Everyone is different.

Live Longer & Enjoy Life! – Red O’Laughlin –


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