Food addiction - can you be addicted to food
Obesity is presently one of the greatest threats to public health in the US. It is estimated that by the year 2030, half of the population will be obese. Presently, in addition to the 33% of the population that is obese, about 55% are overweight. Obesity and being overweight have serious physical, emotional, psychological, societal, and economic risks. Depression, substance abuse, and susceptibility to other illnesses are examples of some common comorbidities seen with obesity.
Despite the wealth of information, public warnings, and availability of diet drugs and healthy foods, people often remain overweight. Of particular note is the number of youth who are overweight. This has contributed to the rise in the incidence of type 2 diabetes among children, which has been estimated to have increased up to tenfold over the past 20 years, and it will undoubtedly result in additional health problems as these children age.
Several questions arise when considering these statistics. Why are so many individuals overweight? Why can't some people stop eating unhealthy food? Why do some people have a penchant for sugary or fat-rich foods, and prefer them over low fat foods?
What is a food addiction
The theory of food addiction posits that, for some individuals, food is like a drug of abuse. There have been several clinical accounts in which people claim to be "addicted" to certain foods, and this addiction manifests as excessive overeating, a feeling of distress when palatable food is not available, and craving of certain foods. These food addictions tend to focus on highly palatable, calorically dense foods, or for some people, refined carbohydrates. Much like the relationship that emerges between a person addicted to drugs and their drug of abuse, those who feel they are addicted to certain foods can find it difficult to stop overeating, which can ultimately result in body weight gain or an eating disorder. Interestingly, a recent study has discovered that many advertisements for highly palatable snack foods targeted at children contain images of the food having drug-like properties. This finding highlights the commonalities between some foods and drugs of abuse, and it reinforces the notion that the concept of food addiction permeates through our culture.
Although the term food addiction is often used colloquially, its scientific definition is now emerging, and evidence is accumulating to suggest that repeated exposure to certain foods can, indeed, produce behaviors and changes in the brain that resemble an addiction-like state. One may wonder how something as innocuous as a palatable food, which many people consume on a regular basis with no adverse effects on health or well-being, could be akin to a drug of abuse. Although foods and drugs are vastly different in their roles in society, they rely on a common underlying brain circuitry, and thus can be quite similar in their effects on the brain.
Possible origins of food addiction
The rapid rise in the overall number of adults and children who are overweight is too abrupt to suggest a genetic cause. Environmental and/or behavioral changes are more likely the source of the problem.
From an evolutionary standpoint, food is necessary for survival, and there exist innate biochemical processes that reinforce feeding behavior when one is hungry. Similarly, other "natural" behaviors, such as sexual behavior, are necessary for the survival of our species, and are thus powerful reinforcers. Some of our ancestors survived to procreate by spending their time hunting for food and then engaging in opportunistic binge eating due lack of refrigeration and the scarcity of their next meal. However, in the modern-day environment of industrialized countries food is plentiful. Those skills that were previously needed for survival may lead to detrimental behavior that affects the brain and subsequent feeding behaviors. Thus, there may exist an innate drive to overeat when food is available, and in our present environment, that may mean that people indulge on a regular basis.
This drive to consume food is motivated by the release of neurochemicals that are associated with a feeling of euphoria and pleasure. Palatable foods are especially strong reinforcers, sending these systems intended to motivate food consumption for survival into overdrive. It is important to note that much like the development of drug addiction, food addiction is not seen in all people and it may become most apparent in a subset of genetically susceptible individuals.