By Olivia Baccellieri
After a particularly taxing day, what do you do? Do you open the door to your fridge in search of your favorite comfort food? Do you feel a sense of overwhelming happiness when that first bite of ice cream, pizza, or other pleasurable food hits your taste buds? If these behaviors fit your personal repertoire, you are not alone in using food as your respite. America has been plagued by an obesity epidemic in recent decades. Increasing portion sizes, declining nutritional value, and food insecurity have contributed to our country’s expanding waistlines. Although pounds are easily quantifiable, the connection between a person’s weight and overall health is complex. Exploring if particular people are more prone to obesity may aid in classifying “food addiction” as a medical term. However, we should also examine how America has arrived at its current size and addiction to food.
In their comparative study, Fletcher & Kenny (2018) discuss the variety of issues surrounding food addiction (FA). FA largely consists of often-distressing cravings, lack of control, and a gross overconsumption of food. FA and binge-eating disorder (BED) do share substantial overlap in characteristics, but those in favor of separately classifying FA believe it may explain the thought processes behind why some people engage in BED. Additionally, FA has been associated with changes in the mesolimbic dopamine system, which involves impulsive behaviors. FA is a relatively newer term in the medical field and suffers from a lack of supportive research as a result. Fletcher & Kenny did not include a specific number of those listed with FA, which suggests a need for greater analysis in this particular area. Some clinicians have argued that FA shares characteristics native to substance abuse disorder. Particularly, these researchers believe that certain foods trigger similar responses in the brain to that of narcotics. However, despite these claims, little-to-no empirical findings have emerged to support assertions.
Foods high in sugar and fat have long been suspected to be common cravings in those with FA tendencies due to the connection of highly-processed foods within American fast-food culture. Despite some convincing anecdotes from self-identified food addicts, researchers have been unable to identify any specific addictive properties within such food components. Furthermore, Fletcher & Kenny mention the lack of a neurobiological basis in the claims surrounding FA. Specifically, in previous studies centered around over-eating, researchers have not reliably noted a decrease in dopamine receptor density, which is often reported in substance abusers.
Those in favor of recognizing FA as a legitimate disorder note the connections between substance abuse and FA behaviors. For individuals with substance abuse problems, they often experience feelings of deprivation when they cannot use, are at risk for potential relapse, and may continue to engage in this abuse despite awareness of negative personal and social side-effects of their disorder. An obese individual may possess a genuine desire to lose weight in order to improve their health, and may also be aware of how their high weight could contribute to diabetes, heart disease, or other weight-related ailments. However, despite this knowledge and these feelings, obese people suffering from FA may find themselves continuously bingeing on unhealthy foods.
In opposition to its detractors, FA supporters believe that the same general brain areas targeted by substance abuse - particularly the prefrontal cortical regions and the amygdala - are also found to be affected by overconsumption of palatable foods. These regions in the brain are associated with decision making and emotional responses, which may explain why those with FA continue to eat particularly unhealthy foods despite recognizing the potential detriments. Additionally, those in favor of recognizing FA support the notion of viewing substance abuse disorders in a constellation format. This perspective accounts for a variety of related symptoms demonstrated through brain and behavioral abnormalities, which are often seen through a lack of control in overeating. As the rate of obesity continues to climb in this country, the debate surrounding FA will only increase. Further research and discussion must be conducted into this topic to bolster greater understanding, and to inform any potential future treatment options.
Fletcher, P. C., & Kenny, P. J. (2018). Food addiction: A valid concept? Neuropsychopharmacology, 43(13), 2506–2513.