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“Food addiction” or “FA” has become a hot topic in both scientific circles and the popular media in recent years. A study done by researchers at Yale University has lent support to the theory that for some, certain foods are as addictive as drugs and alcohol are for others. The research team’s findings were based on data from 39 young women whose weights ranged from healthy to obese. The study assessed eating behaviors that are similar to substance dependence (i.e., needing to eat more of a trigger food to get the same “high,” withdrawal symptoms when the food is avoided, and loss of control related to certain foods). Participants were then split into high and low FA groups and underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to determine the degree of activity in brain areas associated with addiction (aka, “reward”) and inhibition of eating behavior.
What the team found was that, regardless of weight, the brains of high FA women showed significantly increased motivation to eat/craving after being shown an image of the reward food (a chocolate milkshake). No such response was seen after viewing a flavorless beverage. After consuming the milkshake, the high FA women showed less activity in the areas of the brain that would signal them to feel satisfied and suppress the desire to continue eating. The team concluded that addicted individuals may be more vulnerable to food marketing and availability and would also have greater difficulty limiting the amount food consumed.
As with all studies, the results from this one should be considered with some caution. Those with eating disorders or other mental health problems were excluded from the sample, thus, few participants met criteria for a true diagnosis of FA. In addition, the study cannot tell us if men would have responded similarly to the above. Last, the team did not examine how the degree of hunger may have impacted their findings. Nonetheless, the results are thought provoking.
It is worth stating that not everyone who is overweight is necessarily a “food addict;” the problem of overweight is a complex one, and is influenced by a number of factors. These include emotional, physiological, and behavioral, as well as economic. Eating attitudes and behaviors are shaped by family and cultural traditions, societal pressures, as well as personal and interpersonal relationship dynamics. For many Americans, healthy, fresh foods can be prohibitively expensive or otherwise difficult to obtain when compared to the fast food, “dollar value” offerings that are especially prevalent in lower income communities. Furthermore, the constant bombardment with advertising related to food as pleasure competes fiercely with images of thinness as a virtue. Americans often conflate thinness with virtue and obesity with moral failure or lack of personal responsibility. Whatever the cause of a person’s overweight, the latter attitudes are erroneous, most often unhelpful, and markedly hurtful to those who are presently unable to “Just Say No.” Given the above, the problem requires a more thoughtful and multifaceted approach that may include identification and avoidance of trigger foods, education about healthy eating and exercise habits, as well as availability of affordable, healthy foods. Finally, for many, food mimics feelings of love and comfort and distracts from anxiety, anger, or sadness. When this is the case, working with a mental health professional can help to clarify when food is being used to soothe emotional pain and provide better options for mind and body healing.
The citation for the study mentioned above is: Gearhardt, AN, Yokum, S, Orr, PT, Stice, E, Corbin, WR, & Brownell, K. (2011). Neural correlates of food addiction. Arch Gen Psychiatry (published online – April 4, 2011).