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We seem often inclined to pose the question: is addiction to food really possible? We might far more productively pose a deeper, more meaningful question: why is addiction – to anything – possible in the first place?
The proximal answers to that one are: sex, and food. The bedrock answer is: survival. With rare exception, we are addicted to survival.
When we speak of addiction, we have a tendency to blend the formal definition with the informal implications that matter to us. Formally, definitions range from the very concise – a compulsive dependence – to the long and malleable. Informally, we tend to reserve the term for undesirable behaviors, although that’s not truly required. The core elements of addiction are a need for the thing in question, symptoms of withdrawal from the thing, and tolerance to the thing (i.e., the more you get the more you need/want).
We certainly need food, and have withdrawal symptoms from it, ranging from mild hunger to death from starvation. The only potential controversy would involve tolerance, but it has long been clear that taste buds learn to love the foods they are with, and want more of them. The sweeter diets become, the more sugar people tend to prefer. The saltier diets become, the more salt people tend to prefer. The spicier diets become, the more spice people tend to prefer. The long-appreciated fact that familiarity is a potent agent of dietary preference goes a long way toward making the case for ‘tolerance.’
Then, food is firing on all three of addiction’s cylinders. So in the ways that matter, yes, food can be addictive, or something so much like it that distinctions don’t much matter. But again, the real question is: why can anything be addictive? Why is the human nervous system vulnerable to such a response?
“Our nervous system and endocrine system evolved to reward us most robustly for behaviors that require real effort, and are necessary for survival.”-David L. KatzThe answer, as noted, is survival. Our nervous system and endocrine system evolved to reward us most robustly for behaviors that require real effort, and are necessary for survival. Getting food has, until quite recently, required real effort, and is of course required for personal survival. Finding a mate is often a labor-intensive undertaking, but is key to the survival of our selfish genes.
Genes are running this show. The humans who happened to have genes that rewarded them most robustly for eating and mating were most apt to eat, mate and survive long enough to pass on the chance to do the same to their progeny. Those humans who were blasé about eating and mating never gave anything to progeny. Or, stated differently: people who don’t do what’s necessary to survive into adulthood and reproduce make really lousy ancestors.
Food and sex are the reasons variations on the theme of addiction are physiologically possible in the first place. Almost anything else that happens to be addictive is circumstantially hijacking reward systems built for food and sex.
Food and sex are the reasons variations on the theme of addiction are physiologically possible in the first place.-David L. Katz
Opiate drugs – like morphine and heroin – are similar to our own endorphins, and bind to receptors that underlie our intrinsic system of reward and reinforcement. The vast annals of narcotic abuse are really just testimony to receptors that don’t discriminate adequately among a variety of look-alike compounds.
“Can food be addictive?” is at best a rather trivial question. Food is on the very short list of reasons addiction is physiologically possible. Food, and sex, are why addiction exists. Given this, some very interesting questions follow logically. How much does the food industry know about the addictive properties of food, and have they willfully used such knowledge to influence what, and how much, we eat?
A stunning expose in the Chicago Tribune, published serially between August, 2005 and January, 2006, indicates quite clearly that the answers are: a lot, and absolutely. For anyone who didn’t get the message back then, the Pulitzer Prize winner, Michael Moss, has served it up again in both essay and book form. When a food company says “betcha’ can’t eat just one!” you can bet they’ve done their homework.
Another interesting question that follows from the irrefutable addictiveness of food and the almost equally irrefutable food industry exploitations of that vulnerability is: what can we do about it? Quite a lot in my opinion, both on our own, and with a bit of help from the body politic.
For either to happen, we may need to cultivate a modern, cultural addiction that goes beyond mere survival to the true prize: vitality.
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