Do You Want What You Want When You Want It?

Is it O.K. to talk about addiction in the context of food consumption? Because some people believe that foods high in fats or carbohydrates might be addictive, does it mean that foods should be regarded in the same way as alcohol or cigarettes? Or is there confusion among the terms addiction, craving and eating disorders?

Addiction may be characterized by the compulsion to use a substance, by the uncontrolled consumption of that substance, and by the probability of withdrawal symptoms when access to it is denied or prevented. Binge eaters and those suffering from anorexia or bulimia may display such symptoms, suggesting similarities between the body’s reaction to drug use and compulsive eating. It’s been conjectured that common pathways in the brain are responsible for the pleasures obtained from food intake and drug use. In laboratory studies with rats, for example, it has been demonstrated that repeated, excessive intake of sugar can sensitize brain receptors to dopamine in a manner similar to that of illegal drugs. The dopamine transporter is an important site of action of cocaine and amphetamines, where the reward system gets fired up. So far, every kind of reward studied increases dopamine levels in the brain, all of which are amplified by drugs. Besides the reward system, there are other dopamine systems, including those that concern degenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, and those that deal with chemical messenger activity (Basu, 2000) (Devoino, 1988).

Eating involves more than just the pleasure/reward system. Research has shown neurotransmitter variations to parallel the changes brought about by drugs and the intense desire to eat certain foods (Fallon, 2007). If food cravings are at all significant, it is because they play a role in overeating that may be driven by an increase in serotonin caused by carbohydrate ingestion (Young, 2007).

The criteria for addiction might possibly be met by the morbidly obese, especially if it is realized that even nonpalatable foods become desired and over consumed. In the obese, the number of dopamine receptors appears to be decreased in relation to their body mass indices, leading to overeating in an attempt to turn the reward switch on (Wang, 2001). Not until early in this century was there substantial interest in the functional neuroanatomy of food cravings. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was used to track changes in the brain when thought patterns of test subjects were directed away from a monotonous diet of foods not craved toward a diet of favorite foods. It was discovered that the brain areas involved in drug cravings—the hippocampus, for example—also were stimulated by images of preferred foods, leading researchers to conclude a commonality between food and drug cravings (Pelchat, 2004)  The more intense the mental image, the more intense the desire (Tiggemann, 2005).

Could a nutrient deficiency trigger a food craving? Most of us can tell the difference between a real need for food and the psychological need prompted by the television. Once in a while, a nutrient deficit will cue a craving for a specific food…and it likely won’t go away or be satisfied by a glass of water.

Iron deficiency, often associated with anemia, might induce a condition known as pica, a centuries-old eating disorder satisfied by the ingestion of non-foods, such as dirt. Children, and even pregnant women, in poverty areas have been known to eat the paint from window sills to meet what was at one time an unidentified need. Other serious issues would then surface if the paint contained lead (Kettaneh, 2005). Though most of us would associate menses with iron deficiency as a result of blood flow, pica does not necessarily result. Craving for chocolate, however, does sometimes burgeon, as reported in a 1987 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (Tomelleri, 987). Giving chocolate the benefit of the doubt, it absolutely does have the fat, sweetness, texture and aroma that make it so appealing to one’s hedonistic side. It has culinary mouth, too, amiably accompanied by copper, magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, sodium and zinc, not to mention the fatty acids akin to the active ingredient in marijuana (Bruinsma, 1999). Admittedly, lots—and we mean lots—of people (of both genders) succumb willingly to the enticement of the chocolate siren, casting discretion to the wind and leaning on her mineral profile as an excuse to indulge.

Few people crave proteins and fats very often. Carbohydrates and sugars steal the show. To control sugar cravings, five minerals have been tagged as instrumental: chromium, magnesium, manganese, zinc and vanadium. Chromium stimulates insulin production and is vital for normal glucose utilization. It also works to metabolize other carbohydrates and fats. Magnesium is plentiful in the food chain, but not in humans, more than eighty percent of whom are deficient. It’s part of more than three hundred enzymes and helps to maintain tissue sensitivity to insulin. Low stores of manganese telegraph as reduced insulin activity and impaired glucose transport. Zinc influences carbohydrate metabolism by increasing insulin response and improving glucose tolerance. It affects basal metabolism rate and improves taste sensitivity. And vanadium mimics the activities of insulin, while inhibiting the storage of excess calories from carbohydrates as fat (Sandstead, 1997).

A study at Louisiana State found that chromium was able to regulate food intake in healthy overweight women who reported carbohydrate cravings (Anton, 2008), which is a common characteristic of those who suffer some forms of depression (Docherty, 2005). The magnesium in chocolate could explain why chocolate may be used as a form of self-medication in nutrient deficiency because, even though cravings may be episodic, they are real (Bruinsma, 1999). Does chocolate, then, satisfy magnesium deficit, or does magnesium satisfy chocolate deficit?

Food cravings are common, frequently for specific foods. Those for carbohydrates are postulated to arise from a physiological need to adjust neurotransmitters. However, sensory factors need to be considered. Whatever the cause might be, nutrient repletion seems to be the answer.

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