Food Addiction: Hi, I’m John, and I’m a Cholesterolic.
The patient stumbles into the doctor’s office. He has a bleary look in his eyes and a bulbous red nose covered with broken veins. With slurred speech, he tells the doctor about his repeated hospitalizations for cirrhosis of the liver, his gradually worsening mental acuity, and his personal life marked by inability to hold a job, and several arrests for abuse of his wife.
The doctor shakes his head with disbelief. How could one man have so many seemingly unrelated problems? Apparently, he has a visual problem, a skin problem, a neurological problem, a liver problem, mild dementia, and recurrent interpersonal difficulties. No doubt he’ll need referrals to many different specialists and a lot of medication.
Well, obviously, the situation is absurd. No one would miss the diagnosis of alcoholism. But let’s imagine a different case. A man walks into the doctor’s office. He complains of constipation that has bothered him since childhood, and he has been steadily gaining weight. His cholesterol level has tended to run high, and a few years ago he developed high blood pressure and borderline diabetes. He has had recurrent episodes of gout, sometimes requiring hospitalization.
To most doctors, these are unrelated diagnoses, and they are treated with an enormous number of drugs. But an increasing number of doctors recognize this symptom cluster as having all the hallmarks of addiction—an addiction to fatty, cholesterol-laden foods.
Could meaty, cheesy diets really be addicting? An increasing body of evidence suggests that they may well be. The science of food addictions first gained acceptance as it started to nail down the physical basis for chocolate addiction. Apparently, the taste of chocolate triggers the release of opiates in the brain, which, in turn, cause a rush of dopamine, the brain’s principal feel-good chemical. And although research is still in its early stages, studies suggest that the same sort of thing may happen with sugar, meat, and cheese.
Cheese may be a special case. Dairy products contain the protein casein, which produces opiate compounds, called casomorphins, during digestion. Of all dairy products, cheese is especially high in casein, which may be part of the reason people feel more “hooked” on cheese than on ice cream or milk.
Evidence suggests that a hefty portion of our current epidemics of obesity, cholesterol problems, hypertension, diabetes, digestive problems, and other conditions are, in fact, nothing but the natural outcomes of food habits exerting their effects year after year. And huge industries are working hard to make sure it stays that way.
The good news is that recognizing an addiction helps us conquer it, as we’ll see in the article on page 10. In the not-too-distant future, doctors may take a blood pressure, check a cholesterol test, measure a blood sugar level, and, without batting an eyelash, diagnose that most common of North American maladies—an addiction to unhealthy foods.
Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
President of PCRM