Food Junkie

The emerging science of addictive overeating

Portrait of a Food Addict

Is addiction to food making us overeat?

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Look around. Waist lines are expanding at an alarming rate. In fact, with over 60 percent of the country overweight, most of us are overweight. It is the new norm (although that doesn’t mean it is the ideal). Scientists, physicians, fitness experts, cultural analysts, economists and others have identified a wide variety of factors as culprit(s). Surely, you have heard all kinds of explanations about why so many people are overweight: People are less active, junk food is cheap and easier to access, there is no time for exercise, people are more stressed. All are valid possibilities, and on some level, most likely contribute to the problem of obesity.

But there’s one explanation that has been proposed that sometimes elicits a chuckle, or at least a smirk: some people are overweight because food can be addictive.

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And at first, the concept of “food addiction” does seem a bit strange. How can food be addictive if everyone needs it to live?

Sure, we need food to live, without a doubt. But, we don’t need empty calories with little to no nutritional value, or excess quantities of high-sugar and high-fat foods that can jeopardize our health.

The concept of food addiction is relatively new. There are limited ways to assess and diagnose it, and there is no official medical or psychological standard. Nonetheless, studies have revealed that there are behavioral and brain changes seen in response to eating food and drug addiction, and these changes are often markedly similar. As a result, scientists have used the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), which is used to diagnose substance dependence (i.e., drug addiction), as a tool with which to study food addiction. According to the DSM-IV, the seven criteria for addiction are:

1. Tolerance as seen when an individual consumes a larger quantity of a substance to reach intoxication or a desired effect; or when a person experiences a markedly diminished effect when consuming the same amount of the substance

2. Withdrawal as demonstrated by a withdrawal syndrome or taking another substance to alleviate or avoid withdrawal symptoms

3. Consuming the substance in larger amounts or for a longer period than the person intended

4. A persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to reduce or control substance use

5. An immense amount of time is spent on efforts to obtain, use, or recover from the effects of the substance

6. Because of use of the substance, participation in social, occupational or recreational activities are given up or reduced

7. Substance use continues despite knowing that a persistent physical or psychological problem is likely to be caused or aggravated by using the substance

An “addict” is someone who exhibits three or more of these criteria any time in the same 12-month time frame.

Let’s take a look at some ways these criteria might be viewed with regard to food. These are just examples, but they highlight the overlaps that might exist between substance dependence and food abuse.

1. People normally experience feelings of pleasure when they eat. However, some people must eat larger amounts of food to experience this feeling. This increased intake of food required to feel satisfaction might be a manifestation of tolerance

2. Headaches, fatigue, and irritability can be experienced when too much time goes between meals, or when people deprive themselves of certain foods. Could this be a manifestation of withdrawal?

3. An individual may sit down with the intention of having a small, healthy meal, but end up eating much more than they intended, and eating foods that perhaps weren’t intended.

4. An individual may make repeated attempts to try dieting or losing weight, but fail. Also, one may try to cut back on eating certain foods that are bad for them, but find it difficult to stop eating them.

5. People spend a large portion of their day (and sometimes even their night) eating.

6. Excessive eating and being overweight impedes participation in recreational physical activities, and can lead some to be embarrassed or uncomfortable at work or with friends when it comes to their weight.

7. One may continue to overeat even though he or she knows it will impede various aspects of daily life and well-being, such as increasing risks for heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Food addiction is a hotly debated topic in science and fitness. As we continue to search for explanations regarding why, despite all of the public health warnings of obesity, many adults and children continue to be overweight, it’s important to keep in mind that eating highly-palatable foods, or merely just the exposure to such foods, can have effects on our brains and behaviors. Many people overeat because food taste good, and it does something else for them beyond just supplying nutrients and calories.

 

Nicole Avena, Ph.D. is a research neuroscientist and an expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction.

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