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Food Addiction: Is It Real?

Dr. Randi Fredricks, Ph.D. is a therapist, researcher and author with a Ph.D. in Psychology and a Doctorate in Naturopathy. Dr. Fredricks works ...Read More

Food addiction is a term that is used to describe a pathological disorder; namely, the compulsive, excessive craving for and consumption of specific foods. Similarly to binge eating disorder, this condition is characterized by an abnormally large intake of food that is harmful to the individual, resulting in compulsive overeating.

The concept of food addiction has long been rejected by the medical establishment. However, recent research has revealed the neurological similarities between food addiction and drug dependence. Additionally, some eating disorder specialists believe that food addiction is the culprit behind binge eating disorder (BED).

Often referred to as compulsive overeating, food addiction-like BED-is based on an obsessive-compulsive relationship to food. Researchers who completed a 2011 study at Yale University concluded that BED has many of the same characteristics as addictive behaviors, including diminished control and continued use despite negative consequences. They also said that. “A body of scientific literature is building to support addiction conceptualizations of problematic eating” (Gearhardt et al., 2011, p. 201).

Other scientists have noted a similarity between the effects of certain foods and narcotics. Physician and author Jim McDougall compared fructose corn syrup to both heroin and cocaine because all have been processed with the goal of making them a more potent concentrated substance capable of generating intense pleasure. According to McDougall (2006), “People who consume purified carbohydrates in the form of refined flours and simple sugars become habituated to their intense stimulation” (p. 1). McDougall and others assert that other concentrated foods, such as refined foods that contain white flour, have this same effect during their calorie-dense intensity.

A 2004 study found that food craving appear to be the evolutionary source for cravings of all kinds including cravings for drugs and alcohol (Pelchat, Johnson, Chan Valdez, & Ragland, 2004). The scientists used magnetic resonance imaging to demonstrate that food cravings activate the same areas in the brain activated during drug-craving studies, the parts of the brain that are responsible for emotion, memory, and reward. The lead author in the study, psychologist Marcia Levin Pelchat, noted, “This is consistent with the idea that cravings of all kinds, whether for food, drugs, or designer shoes, have common mechanisms” (Monell Chemical Senses Center, 2004, p 1).

In another study, researchers compared the neurological effects of food addiction to drug addiction and suggested that addictive foods activate brains circuitry involved in reward, motivation and decision-making in the same manner as addictive drugs (Volkow & Wise, 2005). They also found that the brain’s regulation of food consumption is far more complex than that of drug consumption because food intake is modulated by multiple peripheral and central signals, whereas drugs are modulated primarily by the drug’s central effects.

In their book, The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force That Undermines Health & Happiness, Douglas J. Lisle and Alan Goldhamer (2006) developed a model called “The Motivational Triad” to explain the mechanisms behind food addiction. According to Lisle and Goldhamer, the triad is a set of inherited primitive drives that pre-wire a person toward 1) the pursuit of pleasure, 2) the avoidance of pain, and 3) the conservation of energy. For an individual with a food addiction, denying the pursuit of pleasure is in direct opposition with the goal of most eating disorder sufferers; the avoidance of emotional pain. Based on this literature review and body of research, a number of addiction specialists have recommended that eating disorders be categorized and treated as an addiction, adding further acceptance of the concept of food addiction. This may help to direct more money towards the research of eating disorders, a group of psychiatric disorders that have historically been underfunded.

References

Gearhardt, A. N., White, M. A., & Potenza, M. N. (2011). Binge eating disorder and food addiction. Current Drug Abuse Reviews, 4(3), 201-207.

Lisle, D. J., & Goldhamer, A. (2006). The pleasure trap: Mastering the hidden force that undermines health & happiness. Summertown, TN: Healthy Living Publications.

Monell Chemical Senses Center. (2004). Images of desire: Brain regions activated by food craving overlap with areas implicated in drug craving. Retrieved from http://moodfoods.com/brain/craving.html

Pelchat, M. L., Johnson, A., Chan, R., Valdez, J., & Ragland, J. D. (2004). Images of desire: Food-craving activation during fMRI. Neuroimage, 23(4), 1486-1493. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2004.08.023

Volkow, N. D., & Wise, R. A. (2005). How can drug addiction help us to understand obesity? Nature Neuroscience, 8(5), 555-560.

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