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Food Addiction

  • An increasing number of scientific studies suggest that food, like drugs or alcohol, can have addictive qualities.
  • Human genetic research, animal studies, brain imaging and biochemical studies of the digestive processes all indicate that some people could experience addictions to food.
  • According to estimates by David Kessler, a professor at UCSF and former commissioner of the FDA, there are more than 70 million food-addicted adults in the United States.
  • Animal studies have indicated that drugs of abuse increase levels of dopamine in part of the brain, activating the reward system, which is likely what is mimicked in a food addiction.
  • About 50% of the obese, 30% of those overweight, and 20% who are at what are considered a healthy weight is actually addicted to a specific food, combinations of foods, or a volume of food in general.
  • An estimated 400,000 adult deaths each year in the United States are associated with obesity. Total costs, which include medical costs and days lost from work because of illness, disability or premature death, from obesity in 2000 were estimated to be $117 billion.

A major advancement in the study of food addiction is the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS). This scale was developed to identify people who are exhibiting signs and symptoms of food addiction.4

The YFAS is the first diagnostic criteria of its kind, designed to resemble the official diagnostic criteria for substance use disorders outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The YFAS attempts to measure the extent to which people binge on specific foods despite repeated attempts to stop or slow down, whether their eating behaviors interfere with their lives, and the extent to which they experience withdrawal symptoms when they abstain from certain foods.5

Major food addiction signs and symptoms include:

  • Eating larger amounts and for a longer period of time than intended.
  • Experiencing a persistent desire or repeated unsuccessful attempts to quit.
  • Spending a great deal of time obtaining food, eating it, and recovering from overeating.
  • Giving up or reducing important social, professional, or recreational activities.
  • Continuing to overeat despite knowledge of adverse consequences (weight gain, nausea, diabetes).
  • Needing larger amounts of food over time to achieve the desired emotional effect (tolerance).
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms (intense cravings, feeling stress/anger, depression) when abstaining from overeating.4

Causes of Food Addiction

Food addiction has many suspected causes. Research has shown that addiction has a genetic component, but other factors may cause food addiction.

  • Emotions and stress. People who become addicted to food may eat to enhance positive emotions and to reduce negative emotions.5 For example, you might eat a pizza to reward yourself for an accomplishment, but you might also eat a pizza because something bad happened and you deserve it. This is classic addictive thinking.
  • Brain chemistry. Foods that are rich in fat and sugar can alter the reward centers of the brain in the same way as drugs and alcohol. The presence of high-sugar foods reduced self-administration of cocaine and heroin in rats trained to press a lever to receive intravenous drugs. The rats preferred the high from sugar to the high from drugs.2  This study shows that sugar might actually have a stronger effect on the brains reward system than these drugs.
  • Genetics. Another food addiction cause may be genetics. A 2002 study found that women with a family history of alcoholism had a 49% higher chance of obesity than those without a family history.6 Although not everyone with obesity has a food addiction, this suggests that there may be a relationship between alcohol addiction and food addiction.
  • Trauma. A study of women with PTSD found that women with the greatest number of PTSD symptoms had more than twice the prevalence of food addiction as women with no PTSD symptoms or no history of trauma. When the trauma and onset of PTSD symptoms happened at an earlier age, the relationship to food addiction was even stronger.7  This suggests that women who have experienced childhood trauma may be at greater risk of food addiction.

[2]. Olsen, C. M. (2011). Natural rewards, neuroplasticity, and non-drug addictions. Neuropharmacology, 61(7), 1109 – 1122.
[4]. Gearhardt, A., Corbin, W. & Brownell, K. (2012)Â Yale food addiction scale (YFAS)
[5]. Parylak, S. L., Koob, G. F., & Zorrilla, E. P. (2011). The dark side of food addiction. Physiology & Behavior, 104(1), 149 -156
[6]. Grucza R.A., Krueger R.F., Racette S.B., Norberg K.E., Hipp P.R., Bierut L.J. (2010).The emerging link between alcoholism risk and obesity in the United States. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 67(12):1301-1308.
[7]. Mason, S.M., Flint, A.J., Roberts, AL, et al. (2014). Posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms and food addiction in women by timing and type of trauma exposure. JAMA Psychiatry. Nov;71(11):1271

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