April Flowers for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
New research from the University of Georgia (UGA), published in the journal Appetite, reveals that the same kinds of impulsive behavior that leads some individuals to abuse alcohol and drugs may also contribute to an unhealthy relationship with food.
The research team found that people with impulsive personalities were more likely to report higher levels of food addiction, which can lead to obesity. Food addiction is a compulsive pattern of eating that is similar to drug addiction.
“The notion of food addiction is a very new one, and one that has generated a lot of interest,” James MacKillop, associate professor of psychology at the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, told UGA’s James Hataway. “My lab generally studies alcohol, nicotine and other forms of drug addiction, but we think it’s possible to think about impulsivity, food addiction and obesity using some of the same techniques.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one-third of American adults are obese. This puts them at greater risk for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. Researchers estimated the annual medical cost of obesity to be $147 billion in 2008, while obese individuals pay, on average, $1,429 more in medical expenses than those of normal weight.
MacKillop collaborated with doctoral students Cara Murphy and Monika Stojek on this study. The team hopes that their research will ultimately help physicians and other experts plan treatments and interventions for obese people who have developed an addiction to food, paving the way for a healthier lifestyle.
Two different scales were used to determine levels of food addition and impulsivity among the 223 study participants—the Yale Food Addiction Scale and the UPPS-P Impulsive Behavior Scale. The results of these scales were compared with the participant’s body mass index (BMI), which is used to determine obesity.
“Our study shows that impulsive behavior was not necessarily associated with obesity, but impulsive behaviors can lead to food addiction,” MacKillop said.
Not everyone who exhibits impulsive behavior will become obese. However, an increase in certain impulsive behaviors is linked to food addiction, the study shows, which appeared to be the driving force behind higher BMI in study participants.
The findings of the study are amongst the first to examine addictive eating habits and how they contribute to obesity. MacKillop’s team plans to expand their research by analyzing brain activity of different individuals as they make decisions about food.
Currently, the food industry has created a wide variety of eating options. MacKillop says that foods high in fat, sodium, sugar and other flavorful additives appear to produce cravings much like illicit drugs. The team wants to understand how those intense cravings might play a role in the development of obesity.
“Modern neuroscience has helped us understand how substances like drugs and alcohol co-opt areas of the brain that evolved to release dopamine and create a sense of happiness or satisfaction,” he said. “And now we realize that certain types of food also hijack these brain circuits and lay the foundation for compulsive eating habits that are similar to drug addiction.”