Hungry? Maybe you’re addicted to food

Amanda
Amanda O'Brien
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With obesity rates spiralling across the world, scientists have suggested many possibilities for its cause. Sure, we’ve heard of many, such as eating too much, not exercising enough, poor sleep, the environment, our genes, and the list goes on.

One of the newer additions to the list might be food addiction.

It seems logical to think one could be addicted to things like smoking and drinking, and even exercise. Why not food?

Researchers from our very own Memorial University noted that one in 20 Canadians is a food addict. That’s according to research released a couple of months back, believed to be the first to record the rate of “food addiction” in the general population.

Of the 652 adults measured, 5.4 per cent met the diagnostic criteria for food addiction, according to the Yale Food Addiction Scale. The scale asks how often people participate in specific eating habits, such as, “I find myself constantly eating certain foods” or “I need to eat more and more to get the feeling I want.”

There has been a lot of attention around food addiction lately, in fact. Perhaps you might recall the headlines suggesting Oreo cookies as more addictive than cocaine.

Researchers at Connecticut College designed a rat maze with Oreos and rice cakes. Probably not a shocker, the rodents spent a lot more time eating the Oreos than feeding on the rice cakes. They also used the same maze to test to rewards like drugs, and found that the rats spent just as much time on the cocaine and morphine side of the maze as enjoying the Oreos from the former experiment.

Interesting, yes, but don’t take this at face value. Drugs were never directly compared with cookies, so we can’t really say truthfully that Oreos are more addictive than drugs.

It is not clear what might make people vulnerable to a food addiction. People that score high on the Yale Food Addiction Scale often respond to high-calorie, high-fat or sugary foods similarily to how a drug addict would when faced with drugs. This is evident in brain scans illustrating the brain essentially has an increase in “feel-good” chemicals linked to reward and pleasure.

In addition to the possibility of Oreos, food with a high glycemic index, such as white bread and potatoes, may trigger the same brain mechanism tied to addiction. Eating highly processed carbohydrates can cause excess hunger and stimulate brain regions involved in reward and cravings, similar to substance abuse of things like cigarettes, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. In addition, research last month coming from Iceland suggests a strong connection in the brain for the regulation of our appetite for tobacco and food, ultimately leading to addiction and obesity.

Many who feel strongly about food addiction are pushing to have it included in psychiatry’s official textbook of mental illness. That being said, the concept of a food addict is currently somewhat controversial. The reasons we reach for food can be varying and multiple. Food fuels the body and prevents hunger. It is also used emotionally to cope with stress, anxiety, boredom, etc. It can also be part of addictive behaviour in general.

However, unlike addictions involving alcohol, cocaine, smoking or even gambling, to eat food is necessary for our survival, and thus the concept of a food addiction is not as black and white as it may first appear.  

No doubt, food addiction is a hotly debated topic that I think we will be hearing about for a while to come. Last month, researchers from the University of Queensland noted there was substantial support for the idea of food addiction, particularly among obese participants. Treating obesity, psychotherapy, educational and support programs were suggested methods to treat a food addiction.

Despite strong support for the idea of obesity as a form of addiction, respondents from the study still viewed obesity as mainly the result of personal choices and stressed the need for individuals to take responsibility for their eating.

Amanda Burton is a registered dietitian in St. John’s.

Contact her through the website: www.recipeforhealth.ca.

Organizations: Connecticut College, American Journal, University of Queensland

Geographic location: Iceland

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