Food Addiction the Next Focus of Obesity Epipanic

In a study posted online that will appear in the August print issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the response of 48 healthy young women in response to cues signaling impending delivery of a highly palatable food (chocolate milkshake) vs. a tasteless control solution; and consumption of a chocolate milkshake vs. a tasteless solution.

The women ranged from lean to obese and had been recruited for a healthy weight maintenance trial. Their eating behavior was assessed using a food addiction scale developed by lead author Ashley Gearhardt, a doctoral student at Yale University.

“Similar patterns of neural activation are implicated in addictive-like eating behavior and substance abuse and dependence,” Gearhardt noted in the study.”Food and drug use both result in dopamine release in mesolimbic regions [of the brain] and the degree of release correlates with subjective reward from both food and drug use.”

Gearhardt and colleagues found that participants with higher food addiction scores showed more activity in brain areas linked with craving. “These findings support the theory that compulsive food consumption may be driven in part by an enhanced anticipation of the rewarding properties of food,” the authors write. “Similarly, addicted individuals are more likely to be physiologically, psychologically, and behaviorally reactive to substance-related cues.

The researchers said that if certain foods are addictive for some people, that could explain in part why they find it so hard to lose weight and keep it off.

While researchers have speculated that an addictive process may be involved in obesity, the authors said that this is the first study to identify distinctive neural or brain activity in people with addictive eating behavior.

In addition, Gearhardt said, ”If food cues take on enhanced motivational properties in a manner analogous to drug cues, efforts to change the current food environment may be critical to successful weight loss and prevention efforts. Ubiquitous food advertising and the availability of inexpensive palatable foods may make it extremely difficult to adhere to healthier food choices because the omnipresent food cues trigger the reward system. (PsychCentral) (emphasis mine)

First, this is clearly a press release — the article doesn’t even come out in print until August. If I know anything about scientific publishing (and I know a little from my day job), it’s obvious that the ink was barely dry on their paper before they released it online, making sure to alert the major channels as soon as they hit “Upoad Article.”

Here’s the link to the online article. Naturally, the full text is behind a paywall. Any of my Fatosphere buds out there got an Athens login?

So this is what we have to go on without even knowing anything about the methodology beyond the statements released by a co-author.

First of all — 48 women. Not a giant sample size. Second — they weren’t all overweight or obese, and they were recruited from a “healthy weight maintenance trial” (if some were obese, and obesity is considered an ‘unhealthy weight,’ then does that imply the obese and possibly overweight women were dieting?) A natural question to ask is if this is going to be another round of ammunition against obese people in the grand moral crusade, how did these addictive responses correlate with BMI? This wasn’t mentioned in the vast majority of statement press-releases (nor in the article quoted above). I dug around and found one person at Consumer Reports who actually read the damn study (shocking, I know, most science ‘journalists’ can’t be bothered to actually read studies), and she said:

The researchers also found that a high score for food addiction didn’t correlate with having a high BMI. You can be lean, but still have an addictive relationship with food. They speculated that this might put lean individuals at an increased risk of future weight gain, unless they can develop behaviors to compensate and keep control of their food addiction. (emphasis mine)

Naturally, BMI isn’t mentioned in 95% of the articles except to implicate this as some factor in the Obesity! Epidemic!

Third — well, where to start. I’ll sketch my ideas, below, my first and later impressions.

First Impressions

As long as they use this study for what it actually shows — that some women out of a tiny sample with higher “food addiction” scores have higher activity in some brain areas linked to reward — and don’t try to generalize to all fat people or fat women, we’re good.

However, it’s unlikely that will happen, given the sensational nature of the science-illiterate press. Also, the co-author herself makes concluding remarks about how this might shape efforts to make people (excuse me, encourage!) lose weight. I.e., change the “current food environment” and restrict “availability of inexpensive palatable foods.”

Well, that’s a funny thing! How would we restrict availability of inexpensive palatable foods? Oh, by levying unpopular food taxes, you say? And you say that if we create a scare, make people afraid of fatty foods by suggesting the foods themselves are dangerous addictive toxins and — horror of horrors! — these are foods readily sought after by especially children and poor people, they might be more in favor of food taxes?

Yeah. Because it’s not like we can just stand by while poor people are actually able to afford energy-dense food, and might even — gasp! — feed it to their children.

Now onto the issue of ‘food addiction’ as an actual phenomenon parallel to addiction to substances like heroin.

When it comes down to it, an “addiction” to food is a silly idea, since it’s not a foreign substance that we can just quit. If someone exhibits higher pleasure or expectations eating food, then it would seem the real root of the issue is why? That ‘why’ is what needs to be discovered and addressed.

Also, food isn’t inherently addictive because there are people who eat loads of fatty, sugary, salty, etc food without experiencing an attachment beyond that being their regular diet. The issue is much more complex than the drug-addiction model, and simplifying it to that point loses precious information about what’s really going on.

I wonder how many of the women who scored high on the “food addiction” scale were former dieters or were currently dieting? I recall items like milkshakes, pizza, etc holding MUCH more fantastic interest when I was dieting (and I’ve heard many, many other dieters talk about this food-fantasy effect, and Keyes did a study years ago that shows it’s a side effect of one’s body experiencing famine). Could it be their wiring is a bit shot, or sensitive, because they’re restricting or have restricted in the past and a bit of their ‘famine’ mindset is still at work?

Final Impressions

This is why a lot of these studies are little more than junk reinforcing cultural biases against fat people or people who overeat. There are so many obvious questions that go unanswered, because all they want to do is generate a quick correlation for a press release. The medical research looking into body size is rife with these kinds of examples.

I took screenshots of a Google News search to prove this thing was an unabashed press release, intended to be — in a very calculated way, mind you — a seminal work in the war against obese people (excuse me, obesity). Some of the article headlines:

  • Heroin vs. Haagan-Dazs: What food addiction looks like in the brain (healthland.time.com)
  • Freakonomics: Another Obesity Explanation: Food Addiction (freakonomics.com)
  • Craving a milkshake? You might be a junk-food addict (Globe and Mail)
  • Can people be addicted to food? (CBS News, 20 hrs ago)
  • Compulsive Eaters May Have ‘Food Addiction,’ Study Finds (BusinessWeek, 14 hrs ago)
  • For Some, Food ‘Addiction’ Similar to Substance Abuse (PsychCentral, 1 hr ago, complete with pic of Sad Addicted Fatty)
  • For Food Junkies, Brains React to Milkshakes Like Drugs (LiveScience.com, April 4, complete with pic of Bad Woman Inhaling Chocolate)
  • ‘Tempting foods as addictive as cocaine’ (Times of India, 11 hrs ago)

What do you think about this study?

12 comments on “Food Addiction the Next Focus of Obesity Epipanic

  1. kprofou says:

    Thanks for this explanation I knew the science “reporting” had to be biased.

    I was initially confused about your statement regarding how food is different from the drug addiction model, but my fuzzy morning brain finally got it, I think. In the drug addicition model, you can’t consume “loads” of drugs or alcohol without developing an addiction, right?

    • bigliberty says:

      Yes, precisely. Also, most people, even those already addicted to a particular drug, will respond to the drug in similar ways — they’ll get high, and I suspect they’d *all* show a reaction similar to the ones found in the ‘food addicts’ above. That is, the drug has a similar response on everyone, while in food that’s not the case, as is shown by this study.

      What would be interesting is to get to the root of *why* some of these women showed those responses, beyond a simple Food Addiction quiz. Were they dieting? What was their diet history? What were their perceptions of food otherwise — do they show any indication of a disordered relationship with food? Are some of them carbless and hence their brain sparks fire when they’re presented with a milkshake, and they don’t want to stop drinking it because it might be the last one they come across for a while? And so on.

      • shaunta says:

        Actually, most people can consume drugs and alcohol without becoming addicted. There is a study that shows that despite heavy drug use amongst soldiers in Viet Nam, there was no higher percentage addicted upon returning home than the percentage of addicts in the general population.

        I wrote about this article on my blog this morning, too.

      • shaunta says:

        Sorry–I just wanted to add that this is why professionals who treat and study alcohol and drug abuse don’t use the term “addiction.” They talk about dependence and abuse. Because someone (many someones) can abuse these substances–using a lot of them in very destructive ways–without developing a dependence on them. (I am a former substance abuse counselor.)

      • bigliberty says:

        Shaunta, great points! I didn’t realize the average person could do a good deal of hard drugs like heroin and not get addicted. However, I wonder about how the brain handles the initial reaction to the drug — do most people get high taking heroin, even if they don’t get addicted? That’s where the point about a lack of parallel between the drug model and food model could be made.

  2. karstyl says:

    I have read the article, and wrote a post about the general concept of food addiction. I have not yet gotten to a critique of the specific article yet, but seeing all the press got me thinking.

    The concept of food addiction just seem wrong. It seems to me that it is drug addiction that used a pathway set up by the body to insure we get enough food (craving + pleasure) rather then food triggering a pathway that makes us take more drugs.

    My longer treatment of the issue is at

    If you want the article, let me know an e-mail address.

    • karstyl says:

      (formatting fail, the link is to my article, the statement was just a aside)

    • bigliberty says:

      Hi Karstyl,

      Neat blog post! Very interesting ideas, and great to see another scientist (I’m a physicist not a biologist) talking hard science about some of the health myths we encounter (I liked your diabetes post, btw). Do you mind if I add you to the Fat LIberation feed?

      The idea that drugs hijack pathways meant for reactions to food (and probably other pleasurable activities) makes a lot of sense to me. I’m looking forward to your future posts on that and other subjects. Cheers!

      • karstyl says:

        Sure, add me. I just started this blog and have some ideas for future posts. They will not all be fat or diet (meaning what we eat, not how little) related, but many of them will be.

  3. raznay says:

    Ugh. Just ugh.

    Aren’t there already enough spears sharpened and aimed right at us?

    It’s upsetting that we have to explain and justify everything we do and eat already. I mean really, really, do people need *more* ways to alienate us? Do they *really* need more studies (fake, wrong and otherwise) to demoralize us and make us the enemy which must be fought at all costs?

    Ugh. So much Ugh.

  4. tanz33 says:

    My response is very much like Karstyl’s – of course our brains are wired to react positively to food, especially tasty food! It’s a biological imperative that we get enough to eat – one we’re rewarded for.

    That said I do think we can ‘abuse’ food, but that isn’t dependant on food alone, any substance can be abused, and it’s about punishment/self hate rather than the natural (dare I say it ‘normal’) gratification that comes from a pleasurable activity.

    (TMI to follow). After I first began dieting as a teenager I developed disordered eating. The type that hung around the longest was a kind of overeating where I would stuff myself full of food (any food, although ‘junk food’ was my preferred choice) until I felt physically ill but I’d keep going and not let myself vomit. That wasn’t about pleasure, quite the opposite.

    Sorry about the rambling :)

  5. pezzdemon says:

    Ridiculous…I really really wish all this obesity epidemic crap was like a boggart from Harry Potter. You call it what it is and it disappears! *sigh*

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s