Food Addiction: Fact or Fiction

candy

You can’t stop with just one…

I go to eat just one cookie and the next thing I know, the whole package is gone…

I’m a chocoholic…

I’m sure at least one of those statements is either one you’ve uttered or heard before. I know I have! They all relate to one concept  – food addiction. If you are anything like me and have a bit of a sweet tooth, at times it may feel like food is indeed addicting. As the holidays approach, I feel like this topic is particularly relevant since it can be tough to not over indulge in all those holiday treats that are readily available this time of year! So, let’s talk about food addiction. Is it really possible that certain foods can lead to addiction? Here are 10 things I learned from my research on the topic.

  1. Food addiction is defined as a compulsive desire to consume “hyperpalatable” foods in excess to reproduce pleasurable changes in brain chemistry (ie. increased dopamine) similar to what you would see in drug addiction.
  2. The Yale Food Addiction Scale is one of the best tools we currently have  for identifying individuals who suffer from food addiction.
  3. From what we know from mouse studies, “hyperpalatable” foods are the most habit forming. These include sugary foods, processed foods, or high fat/high sugar foods. (2)
  4. Potentially addictive foods activate the same pleasure/reward centers in the brain as common addictive drugs. Both food and drugs can stimulate the caudate nucleus, hippocampus, and insula and trigger the release of striatal dopamine, a key player in our brain’s reward system. (3)
  5. In some studies, food addiction was more prevalent among obese participants. In other studies, there was no significant difference in the number of normal weight vs. obese individuals who scored higher on the Yale Food Addiction Scale. (1) Just as some people seem more susceptible to substance abuse, some may be more likely to develop food addiction.
  6. When rats are allowed to binge on sugar, the same neurochemical changes in dopamine, acetylcholine, and opoid systems occur as when they are exposed to an addictive drug. Repeated exposure to sugar results in higher consumption of sugary foods at each feeding as time progresses and desensitization to dopamine (due to fewer D2 receptors) produced from sugary food binges. (2) Therefore, like a drug, a person has to eat a larger volume of a food to have the same “feel good” sensation.
  7.  Rats will also binge eat high fat/high sugar foods which produce the same addictive features as the sugary foods do. They will also binge on fat only, but fat does not cause them to have withdrawal/addictive symptoms like the other foods.  (2)
  8. Scientists are using binge eating disorder as a model for trying to try and better understand how food addiction works.
  9. If future research finds that food addiction is truly a factor of obesity, the addition of medications that control certain neurochemicals in the brain, may become an important part of treatment.
  10. As we learn more about food addiction, it may soon play an interesting role in public policy – like more bans of junk food similar to the regulations on soda size in New York.

If you are one who feels they struggle with food addiction, here are 3 things you can do to help control your craving for addictive foods.

  1. Don’t buy addictive foods. You are less likely to binge on foods if you have to go out of your way to get them rather than keeping them in the house.
  2. De-stress. Stress and lack of sleep often wear down our self-control. Even in this busy, stressful time of year, schedule time to participate in activities that relieve your stress like walks, yoga, reading a good book, etc.
  3. Monitor your exposure to advertising. Yes, this can be very difficult, but when you are trying to control your cravings for fast food or candy, it can be difficult if you watch ads for those things constantly. Think about limiting your tv time or walk away when commercials are on.
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