Compare food to say, cocaine. (There’s no point in comparing food to heroin/morphine, which is so profoundly and debilitatingly addictive that the comparison would not be apt. Heroin/morphine are undeniably physiologically addictive. People can’t stay long addicted to heroin because it too quickly kills, and it only takes one hit to make an addict.) Eating food when hungry induces a pleasurable feeling of euphoric satiation. Snorting coke or smoking crack feels much the same, if some time has passed between hits.
If one is not hungry, it paradoxically takes more food, particularly of the sugary and fatty variety, to induce the same pleasurable level of satiation that eating a regular mix of complex carbohydrates, protein and fat will provide in the face of hunger. When using cocaine frequently, each successive dose must be higher than the last in order to induce the feeling of euphoria that makes cocaine so addictive. Never mind all the physiological processes involved with food and cocaine both eliciting dopamine secretions from the brain. There is a simpler principle involved: The law of diminishing marginal returns. The usefulness and effectiveness of any and every little thing in the universe is subject to the law of diminishing marginal returns. It’s why few people wish to eat ice cream just after eating a gallon of it, and even for those that do, it yields less and less pleasure per spoonful the more it is consumed. The more and more there is of a thing, the less and less useful is each succeeding increment. Consider it a law of the universe.
Getting off excess food, i.e., dieting, after a binge of pleasure eating, elicits severe pain and can force detrimental health issues if done too drastically. If the binge lasted for several years, shaking the addiction might take quite a while, and may require medical intervention for assistance.
Quitting cocaine has more psychic than physiological challenges. Cocaine mainly operates on the pleasure centers of the brain, tricking the user into believing reality has improved when in fact, by dint of cocaine’s expense, and the neural distortions it causes that impair profitable engagement with the world, the user’s reality has certainly worsened. But like food, going on a cocaine diet is physically challenging, with everything from tremors to heart and lung problems, etc., possible if the addiction were severe enough.
Food that is eaten in excess of the body’s needs clearly has attributes resembling those of psychic, if perhaps not severely physiological, addictive drugs, like cocaine. In that regard, excess food is the most heavily abused drug in the United States. The growing ranks of the morbidly obese, obese, and simply overweight points to the addictive propensities of excess food. There is even a network television show dedicated to following a weight losing contest between two groups of fat people.
Excess eating and cocaine doping have in mind the same objective–to induce feelings of pleasure without the necessary antecedent of pain. The human animal is designed to feel pleasure only at the cessation of pain, be it hunger pangs, sexual desire, etc., and the like. Like Gordon Lightfoot observes in the song Sundance, “Sometimes I think it’s a shame, when I get feelin’ better when I’m feelin’ no pain”. And it is not only a shame to try and shortcut the ordinary pain/pleasure circuits in the body, whether through addictions to excess food or to drugs, it is also severely detrimental to one’s health.
There’s a growing movement to recognize food (as this Bloomberg article explains), or at least heavily-processed food laden with fat and sugar, as an addictive drug. And of course it is. The whole point behind such foods is to provide so much pleasure that cravings develop in the users, regardless of the status of their hunger, or of their bodily need for nutrition. But the problem with the idea of recognizing foods laden with fat and sugar as addictive drugs is whether doing so would yield any societal benefits. Three or so decades into the War against Drugs, and the demand for illicit drugs shows no sign of abating, while the demand for legal pharmaceuticals, including not least, sugary, fatty processed foods, has exploded.
Food and drug abuse are part of the costs to living in a society wealthy enough that there are few, if any, immediate threats to survival. Human beings are hard-wired to struggle to survive. The pleasure and pain centers of the brain are calibrated to provide rewards (pleasure) for survival-enhancing behaviors, like eating calorie-laden food, and to impose pain for survival-impairing activities, like dieting. The abundance of easily-accessible food inflicts a sense of ennui on a human psyche that is primed for struggle, which, ironically, a great many people try to ameliorate through the consumption of more food than their body requires. The sense of purpose that comes with struggling to survive is replaced by the sense of purpose that comes with striving to achieve the next sugar high. The purpose of life for the food addict becomes as distorted as the purpose of life is for a cokehead.
The only cure for the feeling of ennui and purposelessness that comes when the struggle for survival seems more or less won is to re-engage the struggle, but in the developed West, this is not likely to happen any time soon (though it might be interesting to follow the trajectory of Greek obesity in the coming years). In the meantime, only the symptoms can be treated. Probably the best way to do so would be to impose some sort of excise tax on particularly addictive foods, mainly in order to recoup the cost to society addictions to such foods can impose. But addictive propensities need individual discouragement to help people from slipping into them, so some sort of tax should also be exacted upon on individuals that become so morbidly obese that their health problems impose great costs on society.
The excessive intake of food has many of the same characteristics as drug abuse, but its abuse as a drug is a relatively recent phenomenon closely correlated to its decline in cost. Making it more expensive might help reverse the ongoing trend towards greater obesity.