When it comes to brain activity, could overeating trigger the same neurons as drinking or drugs? Psychiatrists and scientists are currently debating whether food addiction is a mental health disorder fueling the global obesity epidemic. Some suggest that food addiction is linked to the consumption of processed foods designed to be “hyper-palatable.”
An addiction like smoking?
Many experts believe that overweight and obese people have the same problem as people who compulsively gamble or steal. Earlier this year, health secretary Kathleen Sebelius, said that for some, obesity is “an addiction like smoking.” Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said food and drug addictions are similar in the way they disrupt parts of the brain involved in pleasure and self-control.
Classifying compulsive eating
Clinically, overeating is currently classified as an “impulse control disorder” rather than an addiction. This could change with the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM), which lays out diagnosis rules for psychiatrists.
A discussion is underway about whether compulsive eating should be classified as a behavioral addiction. Experts from around Europe are participating in a project called “NeuroFast” over the next five years to decide whether to make that distinction. How and why food could be addictive will be investigated to determine if addiction is one of the reasons people eat too much and develop obesity. In addition to defining obesity treatments, certain foods could be classified as addictive as alcohol and drugs.
Signs of addiction
Current recognized signs of addiction include tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, persistent desire, inability to stop despite physical and psychological consequences, risky behavior, and devoting a lot of time to satisfying cravings.
Research has shown that many of these signs of addiction are evident in people who eat uncontrollably. In a recent study at the Oregon Research Institute, scientists conducted brain scans on children while they looked at pictures of chocolate milkshakes and while they enjoyed the shakes. They found that similar to drug addicts and alcoholics who need ever larger doses to be affected, kids who eat ice cream regularly need more and more ice cream for the reward centers of their brains to signal satisfaction.
Addicted to M&Ms
Another study at the University of Michigan discovered an area of the brain area that controls the desire to eat sweet, hyper-palatable foods like chocolate. Working with mice, they found that M&M consumption triggered a surge in enkephalin, a neuropeptide associated with pain relief, in a brain region called the striatum. The more enkephalin they detected in the striatum, the faster the mice ate the M&Ms.
Dr. Kelly D. Brownell, director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, links food addiction to hyper-palatable foods. He told the New York Times that the human body isn’t adapted to live on processed foods. Millions of dollars are spent on research to develop processed foods with addictive combinations of salty and sweet flavors, combined with added fats to enhance “mouth-feel.”
Are you addicted to food? Check out the Food Addiction Scale developed by researchers at Yale to determine if a person shows signs of addictive behavior toward food.