The idea of food addiction is an area of medical research that is gaining ground recently in the study of obesity.
Indeed, it is a very interesting concept. The premise of food addiction does not tend to include all food groups.
Let’s face it not many of us spend a lot of time thinking about all the salad and vegetables that we binged on the day before.
However, there is a growing body of scientific evidence 1 2 3 4 that shows that certain foods may lead to addictive behaviour, especially those that are high in:-
- refined sugars
- refined carbohydrates
The Scientific Theory Behind Food Addiction
(i) Sugar Addiction
Research has shown for quite some years that sugar stimulates the same reward centres in the brain as addictive substances such as drugs and alcohol.
Indeed, there have been a few well-cited studies on animals and addictive behaviour. The studies show that given a choice between cocaine and sugar, rats and mice will choose sugar, even when they are already cocaine-addicted.
However, similar studies have also been applied to humans. One scientific study 5, discussing the ‘sweet’ receptors in our brains concludes that:-
“The supranormal stimulation of these receptors by sugar-rich diets, such as those now widely available in modern societies, would generate a supranormal reward signal in the brain, with the potential to override self-control mechanisms and thus to lead to addiction“
ii) Carbohydrate Addiction
It is not all carbohydrates that are a problem for food addiction.
Carbohydrates that the body absorbs and digests very quickly cause a rapid rise in both blood glucose and insulin levels. These carbohydrates are known as high-glycemic-index carbohydrates.
A 2018 research study 6 concludes that high-glycemic-index carbs trigger brain neurochemical changes and behavioral responses that are similar to those in substance abuse addiction.
So, the following carbohydrates are examples of foods with a high glycemic index:-
- white bread
- white pasta
- breakfast cereals, such as cornflakes
- french fries
So, next time you have a carb craving after a heavy night on the town or an argument, think on. You may be struggling with food addiction.
However, it is important to note that these types of carbs only trigger addiction-like behaviors in a subset of ‘vulnerable’ individuals.
Nonetheless, the above study argues that changing the treatment approach for some obese people may be effective in the fight against obesity.
iii) Salt Addiction
Amongst the theories of food addiction there is a body of evidence that suggests one of the main culprits is salt. 7 8 9
Although, again, the idea of salt addiction is controversial in the medical world, there are many research studies that suggest an addictive element for some inidividuals.
There is no doubt that an excess of sodium in the diet plays a role in the development of obesity and high blood pressure (hypertension).
Furthermore, an excess of salt in the diet can have negative effects on the heart, blood vessels, kidneys and brain. 10
However, it is important to remember that salt is essential to health. But we are not talking about a small sprinkling of salt added to your dinner.
Indeed, most of our sodium intake (around 71% 11) arises from hidden salt in foods, especially processed foods. Prime culprits of high sodium foods include bread and cakes, processed cheese and meats, soups, pizzas, sauces and gravy.
A 2016 review 12 on salt addiction shows that salt intake activates the lateral hypothalamus (LHT) in the brain that, in turn, releases dopamine. Dopamine then stimulates the nucleus accumbens (NA) and other limbic systems, central to reward pathways and addiction.
Although, there is a way to go in the research related to salt addiction, there are a number of medical studies that agree excessive salt intake is an addiction.
(iv) Fat Addiction
As with our previous three food groups, some foods rich in fats are also what are known as highly-palatable foods.
One research study 14 argues that, because people don’t binge on broccoli, there is some aspect in certain foods that are rich in fat and/or sugar that encourage binge eating.
Medical studies 15 also suggest that laboratory animals will binge on fats. Furthermore, if the fat is restricted to only three times a week the binge eating increases.
Similar to our other tricky customers above, it is not all fats that are a problem. So, it is saturated fats or trans fats, again found in processed foods, that have addictive qualities similar to that of Class A drugs.
A 2016 medical study 16 on rats shows that again, saturated fat intake (palm oil) acts on the brain’s reward signalling in a similar way to that of other drugs of abuse.
Furthermore, as time passes, on a diet rich in trans-fats, the effects of dopamine on the brain are reduced and thus, more and more fats are necessary for the same effect.
So, examples of foods, rich in saturated fats include:-
- processed meats such as sausages and bacon.
What about the Combination of Addictive Factors in Food?
Having discussed, with scientific evidence, the main types of foods that promote addictive style eating, it is clear that a lot of processed, or fast food contains most, if not all of the main culprits.
This surely means if somebody has addictive behaviour towards highly palatable or refined carbs, the chances are the food they choose and are struggling with, are also high in sugar, salt and processed fats too.
According to (a small) 2015 study 17 not all foods are equally addictive. Furthermore, there is not enough reliable data to identify which particular foods, or a combination of qualities, lead to addictive-type eating.
However, the study does indicate that highly processed foods share qualities such as rapid rate of absorption and concentrated doses of fat, high glycemic index carbohydrates and/or sugar that lead to addictive style eating.
This study concludes that the predictive factors for addictive eating, in order of importance, are as follows:-
- Processing: The higher processed the foods are, the more addictive
- The glycemic load of certain foods (measured by the spike in blood sugar levels) after consumption
- The amount of saturated fat in foods
The Behavioral Aspects of Food Addiction
The Yale Food Addiction Scale
The most acceptable method to determine food addiction is the 2009 Yale Food Addiction Scale.
This is a 25 question survey, that assesses how a person’s thoughts regarding food can assess addiction levels.
Similar to other drug and alcohol addictions, the questions assess a person’s preoccupation and control over their eating habits.
The questions are rated on a 5 point scale of frequency from ‘never’ to ‘daily’. A few examples include:-
I find that when I start eating certain foods, I end up eating much more than planned.
I find myself continuing to consume certain foods even though I am no longer hungry.
Not eating certain types of food or cutting down on certain types of food is something I worry about
I have found that I have elevated desire for or urges to consume certain foods when I cut down or stop eating them.
According to Psychology Today, another important factor of food addiction is tolerance to certain foods. This lead to craving more and more of the food for the same ‘hit’.
Furthermore, withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety or obsessive thoughts, when the problem foods are not available is another warning sign of addiction.
Arguments against the Food Addiction Theory
Although there is a lot of emerging research supporting the idea of food addiction, there is also a lot of opposition to this idea.
Most medical studies agree that there are neurological similarities to food and drugs in both rats and humans.
However, several research studies claim that there is not enough research on humans. Furthermore, it appears that only a subsection of individuals are prone to addictive type eating (around 5% to 10% of the US population).
The main objection to the food addiction theory is that it is not actually the food, in and of itself, that is addictive. Many specialists argue that this is also the case even with highly palatable foods.
One study 18 suggests that periodic gorging of certain foods followed by restriction of that food leads to addictive-like behavior.
So, this would be the case, for example, for all those who periodically do a very-low carb diet and then resume their normal eating patterns.
Additional 2014 research 19 concludes that the actual term ‘food addiction’ needs to be reassessed because it implies there is a substance-based behavior and the available evidence at the moment is poor.
Indeed, the above study suggests that the term ‘eating addiction‘ is more appropriate.
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