Although food addiction is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the term is widely understood as an obsessive-compulsive relationship to food. However, drawing the line between obsessive eating and the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.) can be difficult, as overindulgent eating is not only acceptable in today’s society but also, in many cases, encouraged. This discrepancy has fueled an intriguing debate, challenging researchers to answer the question: Is it really possible to be addicted to food?
As the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity notes,
Behavioral markers of addiction, such as continued use despite negative consequences and unsuccessful attempts to cut down, are evident in problematic eating patterns.
So is addiction to blame for our inability to step away from that second bowl of ice cream? Evidence suggests that, for some, the answer may be yes.
Documented in articles like Heroin vs. Häagan Dazs and If Food Addiction Exisits, Blame the Brain – Not the Cookies, the Yale Rudd Center published a 2011 study, Neural Correlates of Food Addiction (Archives of General Psychiatry); the study found that when women who exhibited three or more symptoms of food addiction (as defined by the Yale Food Addiction Scale) viewed images of ice cream, they showed more activity in brain regions associated with drug addiction (the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex and medial orbitofrontal cortex) than women who didn’t exhibit any symptoms of food addiction. The study concluded:
Similar patterns of neural activation are implicated in addictive-like eating behavior and substance dependence: elevated activation in reward circuitry in response to food cues and reduced activation of inhibitory regions in response to food intake.
In April 2012, Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, challenged her audience at Rockefeller University to:
Compare the proportion of obese people in America to those who are addicted to drugs and then try to argue that food isn’t as addictive as crack cocaine (Time).
Elaborating on the importance of the neurotransmitter dopamine, Volkow explained that reductions in the number of dopamine D2 receptors are common in patients with drug addictions and obesity. Research also suggests that leptin (a chemical that helps tell the brain we’re full) may play a role in substance abuse, by modifying the rewarding effects of alcohol and cocaine – another similarity between food and drug addictions (as a decrease in leptin sensitivity can lead to overeating).
However, the concept of food addiction is still controversial. As Volkow notes,
It has polarized the [addictions] field.
I claim that – no – you cannot be addicted to food, but you can have behavioral and emotional reasons that cause you to overeat. Our body needs food for survival, which is definitely not the case for drugs and alcohol. I think claiming you are addicted in some instances is taking the easy way out, basically saying that it is beyond your control.
So what do you think? Is it really possible to be addicted to food?
(For more details on the Yale study, click here. If you think you may be a food addict, click here to take an abbreviated version of the Yale Food Addiction Scale, presented by CBS, or here to visit Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous.)
Cevallos, M. “If Food Addiction is Real, Blame the Brain – Not the Cookies.” Los Angeles TImes, 5 April 2011.
Gans, K. “Food Addiction: Fact or Fiction?” The Dr. Oz Show Online, 14 January 2012.
Gearhardt AN, Yokum S, Orr PT, Stice E, Corbin WR, Brownell KD. Neural Correlates of Food Addiction. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(8):808-816. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.3
Szalavitz, M. “Can Food Really Be Addictive? Yes, Says National Drug Expert.” Time, 5 April 2012.
Szalavitz, M. “Heroin vs. Häagen-Dazs: What Food Addiction Looks Like in the Brain.” Time, 4 April 2011.