Heroin Or Häagen-Dazs: Your Brain Lights Up Either Way

If you think food isn’t addictive…well, first of all, I don’t think you’d be here reading this. But if you’re here and you still doubt the addictive powers of food, studies from two Yale researchers, Ashley Gearhardt and Kelly Brownell,  published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, are offering evidence that all “addictions” act on the same motivational system in the brain.

Whether it’s heroin or Häagen-Dazs, your brain lights up in the same way.

A brief overview:

The scientists designed a series of tasks to study the brain activity of women, lean to obese, showing images and then eating ice cream. For the women that showed signs of food addiction (i.e. frequently worrying about overeating, eating to the point of being uncomfortably full and difficulty functioning due to attempts to control overeating), their brains showed activity in the same regions of the brain that light up in drug addicts.

The amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex and medial orbitofrontal cortex showed activity. These are the same areas that light up when drug addicts are shown images of drugs.

Also similar to people with alcohol addiction, the food-addicted participants showed reduced activity in brain regions involved with self-control (the lateral orbitofrontal cortex) when then actually ate ice cream.

However, as they ate, the pleasure-related regions of the brain stayed stimulated. In drug addicts, these areas get less and less pleasure over time.

So, in layman’s terms, women with symptoms of food addiction had higher expectations (brain stimulation) that the ice cream would be delicious and pleasurable when they were anticipating it, and they had less ability to stop eating once they started.

Addictions are complex and hard to treat because there’s several components at play: not only are there variations in levels of desire, but also in levels of ability to control the desire. These factors can also change in certain social situations or under stress.

It seems that it’s not necessarily the substance that leads to addiction in users (whether heroin or Häagen-Dazs), but certain situations that may prompt binges in people that might otherwise have self-control. It may be the relationship people have with the substance and the settings in which they are consumed rather than the substance itself.

For example, if you’ve been restricting yourself from Häagen-Dazs for months and then, in one day, you break up with your boyfriend, you get in a fender bender and you rip your favorite dress…you might find cravings for Häagen-Dazs uncontrollable. So you go for it. You consume a pint…or two. And some cookies. And top it off with M&Ms. Pleasured and full, you’re satisfied temporarily, until the food-pleasure-coma wears off. Then you’re left frustrated, guilty and ashamed.

Until the next day comes when it seems like your stress level is at its max, and you remember the pleasure of Häagen-Dazs on your tongue that night a week ago.

And it’s just so easy to stop by and pick up a pint (or three) on your way home from work.

The rush of pleasure and fullness washes over you again, with the wave of guilt and shame following soon after.

The third time around, you find yourself again at home with Häagen-Dazs…and now you have yourself a habit.

You’re not weak, you’re not a bad person, you’re not disgusting. You’re just dealing with your brain in reaction mode, which has now started creating a habit. The habit becomes easier to maintain, and then you don’t need stress or tension or restriction to trigger the urge. It’s now a regular routine.

One of the most frustrating things I kept hearing when I was in the throes of my binge eating was that there had to be an underlying emotion, trauma or stress I was avoiding. Clearly I was trying to “numb out” with food.

I believed that for years. And it didn’t help a thing. I looked deep, I really tried to figure out what the stressors were that were causing my binge eating.

Time passed, my life changed, the stressors were relieved…but I was still binge eating.


Because I had a habit. My brain had become really efficient at repeating the same behaviors at around the same time almost every day.

Once I figured out how to overcome binge eating, I started researching to see if anyone else was on the same page, studying food addiction and binge eating from the perspective of the brain. It seemed like conventional therapy was mostly focused on scanning your childhood or emotions or anything BUT food to fix the problem with food.

In the last few years, there’s mounting research to support discoveries of brain processes in relation with addiction and food.

I whole-heartedly believe the answers to overcoming binge eating lie not in figuring out your emotional triggers, what stress you’re trying to avoid, or your childhood traumas. That might help explain why your brain reacts the way it does…but it doesn’t stop the reaction. Stopping the reaction comes with understanding the brain and how it works to know how to utilize it instead of fight it.

If you want to learn how to break through your habit of overeating or binge eating, my Binge Eating Breakthrough ebook is for you. You'll learn powerful tools and distinctions to be able to understand and overcome your urges to eat more than you want. You'll also learn step-by-step strategies for managing your cravings and feeling control with food.

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