In order to truly understand addiction, and the methods on how to overcome it, it is necessary to consider its three primary components.
First is the physiological aspect, which results from changes in brain chemistry. The second is the psychological aspect, which involves our thoughts and behaviors. The third is the social component.
This also applies to junk food addiction. Since junk food isn’t just an abusive substance but also “food” which almost everyone eats, it makes things slightly different.
Addiction is physiological
It is a scientific fact that substances of abuse cause neurochemical changes in the brain.
When the body ingests cocaine, amphetamine, nicotine or sugar, there is elevated activity of dopamine in the “mesolimbic pathway” in the brain, also known as the reward system.
It is normal that these reward pathways become activated during things we enjoy, such as having sex or eating, and this system is designed to make us actively seek out this sort of behavior. However, substances of abuse have an impact way beyond that of normal enjoyable activities.
To put it another way, the brain “learns” that junk food is associated with a high “reward”, and becomes hardwired to make us want more of it, and to do this it affects our thoughts and behaviors.
For more info on food reward and junk food addiction, I recommend reading this excellent series by Dr. Stephan Guyenet who specializes in the neurobiology of body fat regulation.
During prolonged use, this results in changes in brain chemistry and circuitry which encourages us to compulsively seek out more of the substance. This is particularly strong in people who have a genetic predisposition to addiction.
There are also some suggestions that peptides from wheat glutens can pass in to the bloodstream from the digestive tract and may cross the blood brain barrier. These peptides are known to stimulate opioid receptors, which is a possible mechanism for wheat being addictive.
Addiction is psychological
When these neurochemical changes occur, our thoughts and behaviors are altered. Our thoughts start to revolve around the substance and we start thinking about methods on how to obtain it.
This is because our brain “knows” that eating junk food makes the brain “feel good”. This is the same as with abusive drugs, they affect brain chemistry in a way that makes the brain “feel good”, and when the brain does something that makes it feel good, it will do whatever it can to feel good again.
This often ends up in compulsive behavior which has nothing to do with logic or reason. Sometimes we know that what we’re doing is wrong, but it is as if the part of our brain where logic resides doesn’t have much control over these behaviors.
People are also conditioned to enjoy sweets since early childhood, when candies are often associated with good behavior, birthdays and holidays. Some parents even start rewarding their kids with sweets by the age that they’re barely old enough to speak.
Addiction is social
I think one of the key problems with junk food addiction is the social factor.
When drug addicts go into rehab to give up their habit, they are instructed to cut out all relations with the people they used to do drugs with. This is a critical factor, and long term success is unlikely without it.
With junk food, this is obviously not possible. The people around us are going to continue eating junk food, and it will be a part of major events like parties, birthdays and holidays.
Junk food is also everywhere and it is very convenient to stop at the next drive-through to buy a bunch of burgers and fries. Usually there are few fast food places that actually serve healthy food.
It can start feeling like an obligation having to cook every day, and it can be hard to say no when friends and family are indulging in the foods we are not able to eat.
These were the three primary components of addiction.
It is a good reason why most therapies for drug addicts focus mainly on the psychological and social aspects of the problem, because the physiology is almost impossible to control.
However, when the social and psychological factors are attended to, and long term avoidance of the substance of abuse is achieved, then the neurochemistry in the brain will catch up eventually.