Can you really become addicted to food? Or exercise? Is it genetic?

Are you addicted to food? How is that possible? What do food addiction and drug addiction have in common? Can you really replace food addiction with exercise addiction? Are people who experience a “high” after exercise just genetically gifted? Let’s dive in!

There is actually some science here that shows people DEFINITELY DO have a genetic tendency to have an addictive personality. If one of your parents is an alcoholic, for example, there’s an increased chance that you could also become an alcoholic. We’ve known this since the 60s.

What’s relatively new is the understanding of the mechanism. And as the article is hinting — it’s likely related to either dopamine transmitters or receptors and our tendency to be more or less likely to “seek out” dopamine release by participating in risky behaviors to get that release. Outside the context of drugs, alcohol, and food — we sometimes refer to those people as “adrenaline junkies”.

The interesting “gotcha” here, though, is that food addiction works on the exact same chemical pathways as drug addiction or alcohol addiction. And that those EXACT SAME pathways are also likely responsible for for some people loving exercise more than other people.

In fact, and this is pretty shocking when you think about the implications, the amount of dopamine release when you do 60 minutes of high-intensity cardio is roughly equivalent to the dopamine release from cocaine. It’s also roughly equivalent to the dopamine release you get from eating your favorite junk food. (Read that again until it sinks in. That should illustrate how how addictive food AND exercise really can be!)

More to the point.. If you are the kind of person who’s addicted to food — or uses food as a comfort mechanism, or uses food to help in stressful situations — there’s a very high chance you are also the kind of person who can (eventually) become addicted to exercise.

So if you’re a food addict, you may have a super-power you can harness by redirecting that constant dopamine craving and teaching your body new ways to get its fix. This, in fact, is the ENTIRE FOCUS of BTO, even though I never really come out and put it this bluntly. However, one of my favorite organizations, “Addict 2 Athlete”, uses this exact technique to teach drug addicts to get their dopamine fix from exercise rather than substance. (We did an amazing Podcast with them — check it out here!!)

We teach the same thing in BTO.. learning how to get your fix through pathways OTHER than food.. self-empowerment, learning to love the feeling of being uncomfortable, becoming addicted to bettering yourself, always pushing the edge… As anyone in BTO will tell you.. this stuff is ADDICTING!!!! 

However, and this is REALLY interesting…. unlike chemical based, or food-based dopamine addiction — exercise based dopamine release doesn’t have the same “negative” come-down effect. In drug/food based dopamine addiction, you get that initial “hit”, and then your levels drop way below baseline, causing you to crave the thing even more.. and even more.. and even more after each “hit”. (Yes, junk food absolutely does this to nearly the same level as cocaine).. But with exercise, that fall below baseline never really occurs. So you get the “high” without the negative comedown / correction at the end. It’s win-win.

The difference is that unlike food / chemical dopamine hits — which are easy and automatic — exercise-based dopamine hits take actual effort to achieve. So training yourself towards that addiction is HARD, and most people, especially people with addictive tendencies, never really get over that hump, because they continue to seek the “easy” hit, rather than the one that takes some sweat and effort to achieve.

This is also why some people claim they can “eat whatever they want”, never exercise, and don’t seem to get fat.  Because they’re not dealing with food addiction, their portions tend to be pretty controlled, they tend to NOT eat high quantities of garbage food (they don’t get the same dopamine hit from it that you do), and they rarely exercise. From their perspective, they are eating “whatever they want” (which is a normal, healthy diet, with controlled portions).  We view them as “lucky”.  But in reality, they just have better habits, and don’t get the same “fix” from junk food. OR… they learned early on to get their fix from exercise / competition rather than junk food — and simply don’t seek it out in food or drug form.

The good news though, is that in addition to being able to re-train your brain to get the dopamine fix from exercise instead of food — you can ALSO simply stop eating the junk food and the cravings for it do eventually go from intense to very mild.  They’ll never really go away completely, but just like someone who quits smoking or drinking, they do become very manageable over time.

Too long, didn’t read? Here’s the summary.. If you’re addicted to junk food — you can redirect those same tendencies to become addicted to things that are GOOD for you, instead… but unlike chemical and food-based addiction — exercise addiction has no real downside.