For some, certain foods like chocolate or chips have a strong attraction. So-called “chocoholics” talk about their affinity for chocolate in ways that incorporate terms usually reserved for addiction to drugs or alcohol. Those that believe that they really cannot eat just one potato chip may feel that this food has a particular hold on their appetite that is insurmountable. But food addiction is not just a way to express how much they enjoy a certain food. Experts studying obesity and eating disorders see food addiction as a way to describe processes in obese individuals that bear a striking resemblance to the physiological brain responses in addictions related to alcohol or drugs.
A study from the University of Georgia (UGA) provides insight into the concept of food addiction. The researchers found that impulsive behaviors that characterize the abuse of alcohol and drugs may also contribute to the development of an unhealthy relationship with food. The findings show that individuals with impulsive personalities are more likely to report symptoms associated with food addiction.
Food addiction leads to a pattern of eating that is compulsive, closely resembling the compulsive behaviors associated with drug addiction. This type of compulsive eating is associated with obesity.
James MacKillop, the study’s principal investigator and associate professor of psychology in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, says that food addiction is a relatively new term being used by those in the field of eating disorders. However, the concept is drawing interest because it is believed that the same types of impulsivity that lead to other types of addiction is evident in food addiction.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention more than one-third of American adults meet the criteria for obesity. This increases the risk that type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart disease and cancer will eventually be diagnosed in these individuals.
This also translates to significant public health costs. The annual cost of obesity was estimated to be $147 billion for the year 2008. In addition, obese people are paying more in medical expenses when compared with those that are not overweight. The researchers involved with the study hope that the findings will aid physicians in better understanding obesity and aid them in prescribing a treatment strategy for their obese patients.
Tools used by the researchers were the Yale Food Addiction Scale and the UPPS-P Impulsive Behavior Scale to measure criteria for food addiction and examine impulsivity among 223 participants. The results were compared with the participants’ body mass index, which the measure of the participant’s obesity.
The study reveals that while impulsive behaviors are not necessarily related to obesity, impulsive behaviors may lead to a food addiction, according to the researchers. The exhibition of impulsive behaviors does not indicate a definite case of developing obesity, but an increase in certain types of impulsive behaviors may indicate a developing problem.
The research team intends, through a grant from UGA’s Obesity Initiative, to continue their work with a study examining the brain’s activity as an individual makes decisions about food and eating.
MacKillop points out that the consumer now has a wide array of options. Those foods high in fat, sugar, sodium and additives can create cravings that very closely resemble those associated with illicit drugs. The team intends to now study how the cravings play a role as an individual becomes obese.
Viewing obesity as related to food addiction may help physicians recommend a more effective strategy that pulls in some of the techniques used to treat drug and alcohol addiction. As with any addiction, early intervention ensures a more effective treatment course.