Food addiction is a term that has been made a splash in recent years. It definitely makes for a catchy headline and is a concept that many of us can relate too. How many times have you heard something like “I’m a chocoholic” or “I can’t just have one cookie, once I start, I can’t stop.” However, is food addiction real?
Science is currently seeking to answer this question and it is a pretty controversial topic. Let’s take a deeper look at what food addiction is, what the science says, and some of the controversy behind food addiction.
Food addiction is defined as the compulsive consumption of highly palatable foods to activate pleasurable changes in our brains. Highly palatable foods include foods that are sugary, processed, and/or high in fat. The concept of food addiction suggests that these highly palatable foods and addictive substances have similar effects of the brain.
The anticipation of eating activates the same regions in our brains as substance abuse and the consumption of highly palatable foods activates the same reward/pleasure centers in the brain as addictive substances. For example, a study by Gerhardt and colleagues compared people with three or more symptoms of food addiction with those who had lower food addiction symptoms. The participants were given a chocolate milkshake. Those with more addiction symptoms saw an increased activity in reward regions of the brain and decreased activity in the areas of the brain related to inhibition. This type of brain activity is similar to what is seen with substance dependence.
Other studies suggest that food and addictive substances trigger the release of striatal dopamine, which is a major player in reward circuits in the brain. Several studies using rats as subjects have found that consuming highly palatable foods increases dopamine activation and decreases binding of dopamine receptors. Additional research surrounding behavioral patterns and food addiction found that primates who were given chocolate preferred to spend time in the areas where they received the chocolate while primates who didn’t receive chocolate showed no preference for where they spent their time.
Despite some support for the concept of food addiction, the evidence is far from conclusive. Furthermore, there is no actual definition of what an addictive food is – studies use the term “highly palatable food” but we still don’t know exactly what it is about the food that could make it addictive. Is it an ingredient? Is it a combination of ingredients?
Most food addiction research has been conducted with animal subjects, while the limited research with humans is with the YFAS. It is unclear if the research with animal subjects generalizes to humans. The YFAS is based on an individual’s thoughts and reflections surrounding food experiences, which doesn’t provide scientific evidence at a biological level for food addiction.
A fundamental question remains as to whether we can truly define something as addictive if that something is necessary for survival. Part of the reason that food is pleasurable and rewarding is because we have to consume it in order to live. If eating wasn’t rewarding and enjoyable, we wouldn’t do it. Most addictions that are currently defined and able to be diagnosed aren’t necessary for survival.
While the research surrounding food addiction is still in progress, my experience tells me that the feeling of a total loss of control around food is quite real. While we may not yet know the cause of such feelings, it is important to manage them. If you have these feelings know that it is possible to find peace with food – mindful and intuitive eating can help you get there!