Food Addiction Similar to Drug Addiction in the Brain

There have been studies that show that addiction to food is the basis for over-eating, leading to the onset of obesity. However, no study has explored the actual mechanism behind food addiction in the brains of obese and overweight individuals. This study showed that on scoring rates of food addictions, higher scores indicated activation of certain parts of the brain. The study found that, “Similar patterns of neural activation are implicated in addictive-like eating behavior and substance dependence.”

With almost one-third of Americans being either overweight or obese, a major concern is the development of diseases related to excess weight. Notable among these are heart disease and diabetes, which can lead to disability and premature death. There are no concrete therapies to prevent or cure obesity completely because most people regain the lost weight after therapy. Studies have shown that food addiction is a common cause that plagues obese people and this condition is very similar to drug abuse and addiction. Both food and drug abuse lead to the release of a substance called dopamine in the brain, which causes feelings of pleasure. This study examined the level of food addiction and its similarity with drug addiction and dependence in humans.


  • For the study, 48 females who were either of normal weight or obese were selected.
  • A brain scan was performed on the women, who were told to expect a tasty food item (a chocolate milkshake, for example). The scan was repeated after the food item was given to the participants.
  • A brain scan or MRI (magnetic resonance scan) was performed on all the individuals who participated. Blood oxygen was measured, both during anticipation and after receipt of the food. The overall addiction scores were calculated.


  • The results of the brain scan showed that where the food addiction scores were high, there was a marked activation in certain parts of the brain such as the “anterior cingulated complex, medial orbitofrontal cortex, and amygdala” when the women were expecting tasty food.
  • Fifteen women who had high scores of food addiction had more activation of certain parts of the brain like the “dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and caudate” lobe. This activation was higher when compared to 11 women who had low addiction scores.
  • The activation of a part of the brain called the “lateral orbitofrontal cortex” showed decreased activation once the food was actually provided to the participant.

The authors agree that two important things were not considered in the analysis. One was that the participants were not evaluated for eating disorders. The second shortcoming was that all the participants were asked to abstain from food for four to six hours. However, the effects of hunger were not considered in this study. The authors suggest further studies to evaluate these aspects.

This study showed that brain scans tend to show similar changes with food addiction and drug addiction. The neural activation of the brain and certain areas that respond to pleasurable stimuli are shown to be similar in the case of food addiction, too. The authors write that this study is the first that finds the association between food addiction and brain activation. The study establishes a valid score to assess the level of food addiction in individuals. The authors also showed why some people fail to lose weight. Such people might suffer from food addictions that prevent them from overcoming obesity and excess weight. The authors suggest that changes in the food environment and food advertising, as well as measures to decrease food related expectations and anticipation, could help obese and overweight people lose weight and maintain their weight loss.

For More Information:
Neural Correlates of Food Addiction
Publication Journal: Archives of General Psychiatry, April 2011
By Ashley N Gearhardt; Sonja Yokum, PhD
From the Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut and University of Texas, Austin, Texas

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

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