Can a food binge have the same brain-level effects as smoking a cigarette or having an alcoholic drink for some people? Recent research suggests this is true, and brings to attention the possibility that widespread obesity may be better treated with strategies like those for drug and alcohol addiction, instead of assumptions that a person’s personality response should be the treatment target.
Although research in the past has looked at similarities between compulsive overeating and drug or alcohol addiction, a recent study from Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity is the first of its kind to specifically look at the brain-level response of certain foods in a comparison to substance abuse responses. The study results could be interpreted as proof that food addiction may be related to biological processes, according to an article from Medscape Today, rather than just a person’s inability to cope with emotions or other psychological factors.
Published in General Psychiatry, researchers said participants utilized the Yale Food Addiction Scale and fMRI tests to look at their food addiction behaviors and symptoms in relation to their brain activity. A cue for a pleasurable food, like chocolate, was photographed with fMRI imaging, and then compared to the person’s brain responses toward items without taste.
As participants anticipated the fattier, pleasurable foods, their brain areas related to reward, motivation and cravings in ways that resembled how alcoholics or smokers might react to seeing a drink or a cigarette. Researchers suspect food cues in everyday life could set off cravings and responses as strong as a nicotine or alcohol addiction for compulsive eaters, and that people who have this behavior could have brain activity that signals a heightened anticipation toward the pleasure and rewards the foods they crave will offer.
Researchers suspect that a craving for certain foods can become almost obsessive for some people, and their ability to say no to those foods could be inhibited by certain brain activity. Studies like this are part of larger efforts to explore the causes and treatments of food addiction, as well as counteract widespread obesity.