Can Food Be Addictive, Like Drugs Or Alcohol?

Obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. and many other developed and developing countries. The cause of this epidemic is relatively straight forward: when energy in (food, drinks) exceeds energy out (activities of daily living, planned exercise), weight gain follows. Could our propensity to eat too much have anything to do with the foods that are commonly available to us? When you are hungry, do you crave salty foods and foods with added sugars, or apples and broccoli?  Many of us will choose the former over the latter most of the time. Is it possible that food manufacturers know something about human nature and our addictive tendencies? These are intriguing questions that have drawn the attention of nutrition scientists in recent years.

The scientific definition of addiction is provided by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association (Am Psych Assoc). Criterion for addiction include (among others): 1) taking larger amounts for a longer period than intended; 2) a persistent desire or repeated unsuccessful desire to quit; 3) much time/activity is spent to obtain, use or recover; and 4) use continues despite knowledge of adverse consequences. Could this have application to food intake among obese individuals?  Consideration of how each point above could relate to food intake may provide clues: 1) habitual overeating; 2) repeated, unsuccessful attempts to lose weight; 3) time spent trying to lose weight; and 4) obese individuals know the risks, but still cannot stop overeating. So, food intake can follow addictive patterns. But, which foods might be the culprits and how might we know? Let’s have a look at some recent research on this issue.

Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity has published a “food addiction” scale (Food Addiction Scale). This was developed in response to recent research that shows that the brain responds similarly to drugs and highly palatable foods, and that work with laboratory animal models has shown commonalities between sugar consumption and drug addiction. Emerging science also supports the possibility that this applies to high-fat and high-sugar foods. The researchers at Yale thus hypothesized that certain foods could trigger addictive behaviors in some people. Based upon these scientific and observational findings (and numerous others not mentioned) and the prevalence of such foods in America today, the Yale center suggests that food advertising to children and school lunch programs be reexamined. Ongoing research will certainly provide additional information on this topic in the future.

How then are we to proceed as individuals or as society as a whole. Are we to be skeptical of the food manufacturing industry and to question what is added to our foods and how they are processed? Perhaps, the emphatic answer to this question is, YES. Nutritional science tells us to avoid highly processed foods with added fat or sugar. The bottom line then is that we will all be better off in the long run if we focus on natural whole foods with high nutrient density. In doing so, we can cut the food manufacturing process totally out of the picture and protect our own health. (Written with the creative assistance of Juliana Schmidt and Tiffany Sleek, both University of Florida undergraduate students)