• Secretly binge on chocolate or other “sinful” treats?
  • Feel guilty or overwhelmed with remorse after eating?
  • Frequently find yourself preoccupied with the thought of food?
  • Have cravings all the time and eventually give into them even when you’re not hungry?

It’s normal to experience all these every once in a while, but indulging them on a regular basis may be a sign that you are addicted to food. While food addiction may not seem as dangerous as drug or alcohol addiction, it’s not entirely risk-free. It can lead to health problems such as obesity the complications that come with it.

Experts say food addiction may not be about food at all. An addiction to food characterizes compulsive eating, which is, like other eating disorders, rooted in emotions. While its exact causes have yet to be identified, experts say emotionally driven eating could be due to low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, shame, guilt, and depression. Food becomes the refuge and eating, the coping mechanism.

Once overeating has become pathological such that it results in extreme weight problems or obesity, part of the underlying cause could also be biological in nature. Researchers from the US-based National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) revealed that dopamine levels in the brain may influence addictive behavior. One study describes dopamine as “a neurotransmitter that acts in the brain and helps regulate feelings of pleasure and modulates the rewarding properties of food.” It suggests that the problem of food addiction or compulsive overeating could be, in part, involuntary.

But this biological cause doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to curb the compulsion to overeat. You are not destined to lose control over your emotions and your appetite.

What the researchers found is that exercise is still an effective means of increasing dopamine levels, which could suppress appetite. NIDA researcher Dr. Gene-Jack Wang reported that “the most appropriate practical application of this finding is to urge overweight individuals to exercise. In lab animals, exercise has been shown to increase dopamine release and increases the number of dopamine receptors, which help quell the urge to pathologically overeat.”

Read these other articles for articles on fitness and health:

(First published in Marie Claire Magazine, Features section as "Are You Addicted to Food?" in August 2006; adapted for use in Female Network)

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