Is Food Addiction Real?
April 22, 2013

Can You Really Be Addicted To Food? – One Of The Hottest Debates In Modern Psychology

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

The word ℠addiction´ was once reserved for the hardest and most dangerous of substances, and typically elicited an image of a person in a helpless and deplorable state of existence. Psychologists have since been testing the boundaries of this definition, finding examples of Internet addiction, gambling addictions and addictions to pornography and sex. Some have even discovered that the same portion of the brain that´s affected by addiction is affected when a person eats, leading them to believe that an addiction to food could be possible.

The biggest caveat here, of course, is that food is a necessity for survival, and while the stomach can send signals to the brain that it is becoming full, there are no signals to let the brain know that it has had too many harmful substances, such as alcohol, cocaine or heroin. While the psychology community continues to debate this area of addiction, a newly revised version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) will include binge-eating disorder as a new type of diagnosis for addiction.

Addiction is generally defined as the continued or compulsive use of a substance, despite negative and/or harmful consequences.

Those who disagree with the notion of a food addiction rightly insist that food is a biological need and does not qualify when typical addictive behaviors are considered.

According to the latest edition of the journal Biological Psychiatry, neuroimaging research has discovered that consuming food and taking drugs can, in fact, have a similar effect on the brain. While this does not confirm that food addiction is an equivalent type of addiction, it has led the journal to dive into the issue and open the floor for further debate. There´s been much talk about the possibility of an addiction to food and even some preliminary studies, but the journal aims to take a comprehensive look at both sides of this argument in their latest publication.

Guest editors Dr. Dana Small and Dr. Ralph DiLeone from the Yale School of Medicine brought together original research, reviews and opinions on this topic to fuel both sides of the debate.

“While it is attractive to use the addiction framework to ℠jump start´ and guide our understanding of how neural circuits of reward and self-control might contribute to understanding overeating and the obesity epidemic, the price of adopting an inappropriate framework would be high,” write DiLeone and Small in a statement.

“For example, an inappropriate adaptation might steer research towards evaluating variables that have been shown to be critical for addiction at the expense of those that are unique to obesity and perhaps key to understanding overeating.”

Those who believe in food addiction point to the lack of control and dangerous nature of binge-eating disorder. Though the effects of binge-eating disorder are not typically as harmful as drug addictions, these researchers believe that similar addictive behaviors are present in these patients.

Those on the other side of the debate believe that a food addiction could be a slippery slope that could eventually detract from the power of the very word ℠addiction.´ In this special edition of the journal, both sides of the debate are backed by neurological and psychological findings. DiLeone and Small also note that binge-eating disorder is well represented in this issue with some researchers finding that it could be a sub-type of obesity and therefore closely related to drug addiction.

Last year, Dr. Nora Volkow argued that food addiction is a legitimate affliction, but also pointed out that it is not a popular concept.

In a 2012 lecture at Rockefeller University, Dr. Volkow argued that a reduction in dopamine D2 receptors is common in both drug addicts and the obese. These receptors are linked with the inability to resist temptation in areas of the brain that process self control. In areas of the brain which process pleasure, a small number of these receptors has been found to lessen the enjoyment of food or drugs. Volkow noted when animals are deprived of dopamine, they simply refuse to eat because they do not derive pleasure from it.

It´s yet to be determined whether food can be considered the real McCoy, but if this issue of Biological Psychiatry has anything to say about, researchers may soon be hot on the trail of an answer.