Food Addiction Is Real

Whether food has addictive potential like drugs is an unanswered question. An overview of articles presented at a symposium points out that there is some similarity between food addiction and substance addiction and that this finding is noted both in humans and rats. However, not all foods are addictive. Foods containing high fats and sugars seem to be addictive but it is likely that their addictive potential has more to do with manner in which they are presented and consumed.

Addiction can be defined as a compulsive dependence on a specific substance or a habit. There is a growing interest in food addiction not only among scientists but also in the non-scientific community, as reflected by the frequency of this search term in Google. Scientific literature also mentions food addiction in relation to disorders like binge eating and obesity. However, there are some questions pertaining to this. For example, should rigorous scientific criteria be applied before labeling food as an addictive substance? Can food, a necessary thing for sustaining life, be labeled as addictive? Are all food substances potentially addictive? Is addiction in animals similar to that in humans? A current report from a symposium titled ‘‘Food Addiction: Fact or Fiction?’’ held at the 2008 Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego attempted to find answers to these questions. The reviewers declared that the subject of food addiction is very important in order to understand why we lose control over diets and, ultimately, how we can overcome eating disorders.

Sixteen research papers were presented and/or reviewed at the symposium, including some papers written by the reviewers themselves. Some of these papers provided the definition of addiction that can be applied in human and animal research regarding food addiction. Others presented findings that could be grouped under four subthemes: (1) Evidence for food addiction in humans; (2) animal studies and underlying basis of food addiction; (3) definition of addiction in animals; (4) evidence for food addiction in animals.

Key findings
* In humans, bulimia nervosa (binge eating) fulfills at least three of the seven conditions for substance addiction mentioned in “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”
* One study reviewed discovered that food cravings stimulate the same areas in the brain, which are known to be responsible for drug cravings.
* In rats it was shown that withdrawing from a diet high in fats causes neurochemical reactions equivalent to those that are brought on when withdrawing drugs.
* Another study demonstrated that in rats, gorging on sugar can cause neuronal and behavioral changes akin to those caused by drugs.
* The authors themselves showed that a high motivation to work in return for cocaine or fat and an increased “cocaine–seeking” behavior can be stimulated in rats that have been gorging on fat.

Next steps
With evidence that it is possible to be addicted to a certain pattern of food consumption, it is imperative that the subject of food addiction be studied further. This needs to be done in order to find new ways of clinically handling this condition. This can lead to new light being shed on related problems like obesity, substance abuse, depression etc.

The papers presented in this symposium pointed out that brain responses to food and addictive substance are similar in humans and rats. Highly palatable foods with high fats and sugars are considered ‘addictive’. However, they might not be addictive in themselves; the presentation and method of consumption of the food might be responsible for setting up a process in the brain, leading to an addiction. Why people lose control over their eating habits would require further research. This might pave the way for advancing clinical management of overweight, obese patients with higher health risks or people suffering from binge eating disorders.

For More Information:
Symposium Overview — Food Addiction: Fact or Fiction?
Publication Journal: The Journal of Nutrition, January 2009
By Rebecca L. Corwin; Patricia S. Grigson; Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, Hershey, Pennsylvania

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.

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