We have all heard people, often in jest, saying they are addicted to food. Many will profess that they are “chocoholics”, or “sugar addicts”.
So is this true? Is there evidence that our brains really respond to food in similar ways that they respond to other addictive drugs and substances?
The answer to this has huge implications.
A new study gives us some answers:
Neural Correlates of Food Addiction
Ashley N. Gearhardt, MS, MPhil; Sonja Yokum, PhD; Patrick T. Orr, MS, MPhil; Eric Stice, PhD; William R. Corbin, PhD; Kelly D. Brownell, PhD. Arch Gen Psychiatry. Published online April 4, 2011
Researches explored the responses of individuals presented with pictures of a chocolate milkshake, as well as their responses to the actual ingestion of the milkshake. Participant’s brains were monitored with a functional MRI, and they were also given the Yale food addiction questionnaire.
The results showed that the brain responses were similar to those who have substance addictions. Specifically, not only were the reward centers activated, but the areas responsible for inhibition were also activated in response to food in the same way as those who have substance addictions. Put another way, for some people – your brain gets the same reward reaction from a milkshake as it does a cigarette. Also, the part of your brain that says, “ok – that’s enough, I’m done” gets shut down in the same way an alcoholic’s brain does when they are a few drinks back.
So What Does This Mean?
This study is the first to show physical evidence that food can be addictive to a similar extent as other substances.
The implications of this are huge. Some may interpret this as a relief of personal responsibility towards eating behaviors. The thinking may go something link this, “I’m truly addicted to food, it’s how my brain is wired, so I can’t help it.” This would be a big mistake. Others may use this to bolster the argument for taxation on certain foods, like sugar. Consider the response to research on the addictive qualities of tobacco. The taxation of tobacco has certainly reduced smoking. Interestingly, obesity has become the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, surpassing smoking. Some may begin to search for a drug or medication that affects the neurochemistry of the brain.
My hope is that perhaps this study will serve to validate the struggles many have in improving their diets. Maybe those who struggle with controlling their diet will stop the defeatist and unproductive mindsets, thinking of themselves as lazy, unmotivated, and undisciplined. Instead, this study might validate the seriousness of their condition. It may finally trigger the sense that they need to battle this, to fight this not as a cute little vice, but a serious and potentially fatal condition. One that requires the full support and understanding of family, friends, co-workers, and health care professionals. Maybe half baked fads that prey on the emotions and misinformation while failing to deliver any substantive results will be exposed.
In some cases controlling food intake may be more difficult that contending with substance addiction. The reason is that you can’t simply give up eating, or eliminate exposure to foods. You have to eat, and food of all types is everywhere. The marketing and advertising of unhealthy foods makes things more difficult. In contrast, nobody needs to smoke or drink to survive. There are social norms and laws that impact the availability and promotion of tobacco alcohol, and other substances.
For some, food is clearly addictive. No one knows if we are hard wired to be food addicts, or if it is an acquired condition. For these people, it seems the whole moderation mantra might not be wise. “Just a little sugar” for a food addict may be like “just one drink” for an alcoholic. Of course, many of us are not addicts – and moderation or periodic indulgence could be perfectly fine.
How to you know if you are a Food Addict?
Researchers from Yale used a questionnaire in this study that correlated with the functional MRI findings indicating addiction responses to food. This has been validated as a measure for food addiction disorders. We will be incorporating this into our assessment in our Body Balance Challenge nutritional workshop.
So what do we do about it?
There are no studies as of yet to investigate intervention approaches for those with diagnosed food addiction disorders. However, I believe an effective program would look like this:
- Assessment of quality of life and food addiction screening
- Assessment of relevant measures, such as body fat and girth measures
- Provision of individually designed meal plans with caloric needs based on lean body mass
- Extensive support (emotional, environmental) from family, friends, peers, and professionals to facilitate behavior change.
- Extensive education about effective, pragmatic, and flexible strategies to adopt proper nutritional practices
- Structured accountability provided by a professional via counseling, re-assessment, incentives, etc
- Provision of proper exercise programs
I’m proud to say that is exactly the structure of our Body Balance Challenge, which has been responsible for profound changes in participants over the last 9 months.
So does knowing about food addiction change anything?
Regardless of whether you are considered a food addict, the principles of proper nutrition still apply. Yet this research has 3 important implications that will certainly affect you in the short term:
1. Knowing that food is addictive will serve to reinforce how difficult nutritional changes can be, and validate the use of comprehensive strategies.
2. It will give the food addict some much needed comfort explaining why they might not be failing with simply diet strategies, but these strategies are failing them, and better ones are needed.
3. For those who do not currently display signs of food addiction, it may give you another reason to reconsider overindulgence as it may result in addiction.
Words of Caution About Food Obsession
I don’t want people to become obsessed about food – that certainly isn’t healthy. We should enjoy it – it’s part of a balanced life. But for some of us, the balance gets disturbed, and things go wrong. sometimes our overindulgence is to blame, other times, it’s how we are born, and more likely it’s a little of both. Many people I know, myself included, occasionally enjoy chocolate, beer, and pizza, and are able to stay very healthy. Others – this sets them off into binges and cravings. It isn’t necessarily fair, but it is simple a fact. This is not too different from people who are trust fund babies, versus the poor working class. Those who are poor are going to need to work harder, smarter, and make more sacrifices. Sometimes it is the same for food. But I can tell you, without a doubt, that for those who face a big struggle with food and need to make big changes to re-balance their health, the positive result is far greater than the struggle.
As one of our BBC participants and runner-up, Lee Miraglia, said:“nothing tastes as good as healthy feels!”
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