“For the most part, food addiction is widely accepted as a concept, even though it’s not officially recognized as an addiction,” says Gold. Take gambling for example, which recently earned addiction status in the DSM. “The medical profession recognized gambling as an addiction before the DSM did, and evidence for food addiction is as strong, if not stronger,” says Gold.
Animal studies have found that overconsumption of certain foods can cause addiction-like responses in brain circuits and spurs the development of compulsive eating. Gold has shown in his research that taking animals off sugar after they’re used to regular consumption can cause a drug-like withdrawal (similar to that of opiates or narcotics) as well as physical changes to the brain.
Ok, animals are one thing, but what about humans? A recent study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that women who tended to be compulsive eaters had more activity in parts of the brain associated with addiction when viewing or tasting chocolate milkshakes, lending credence to the idea that food can trigger similar responses in the brain as drugs and other addictive substances. “We were able to match the behavioral indicators of food addiction to the brain indicators as well,” says Ashley Gearhardt, lead study author and clinical psychology doctoral student at Yale University. Earlier imaging studies also found that food and drug cues activate the same regions of the brain.
Another sign that certain foods might affect people like a drug: “We’re learning that if someone abuses food, they’ll start to cause anatomical changes in brain receptors for substances that mediate moods (like dopamine and serotonin),” says Marty Lerner, Ph.D., Clinical Director of Milestones in Recovery, an eating disorder treatment center. More specifically, these receptors are damaged with the continued consumption of certain foods (like high sugar products), causing what’s known in the addiction world as tolerance (you need to consume more and more to get the same effect).
Is Anyone Doing Anything About it?
Experts in the field are hard at work on exciting and promising research to bolster the notion that food can be an addiction. But, they’re still trying to figure out the best and most effective treatment, and until that happens, some feel that it’s unlikely that it will be recognized as a “true” addiction.
Gold and his principal collaborator, Nicole Avena, Ph.D., are looking into the similarities of sugar and alcohol withdrawal, as well as potential pharmacological treatments that might interfere with the development of food addiction. “If you’re diagnosed with strep throat, you get penicillin; if you’re bipolar, you get medication,” says Gold. “We need to find the answer to what works to combat food addiction before it will be viewed as a disease.”
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