Food Addiction: A Real Thing?

Is food addiction a true disease with biological underpinning or merely an excuse by those who simply like to eat more and just happen to lack discipline and will power? A recent research study has provided support for this controversial notion that addiction to food is a true addictive disorder. The study found that eating large amounts of refined carbs can excite the areas of brain involving senses of pleasure and reward, mediated by the neurochemical dopamine. This can result in cravings for more food and the individual’s feelings of being hungry.  These same brain regions are involved in drug abuse and addiction, raising the logical possibility that certain foods may have addictive potential.  Unlike previous research which primarily focused on studying the brain activity soon after eating various kinds of food, this one involved measuring levels of blood sugar and the person’s level of hunger only when four hours had passed since the consumption of food that was different only in terms of their content of refined carbohydrates. This time interval of 4 hours after a meal is thought to be critical as it determines a person’s appetite and eating activity at the following meal time. In addition, previous research studies had mainly focused on studying the effects of foods that are very different in terms of their calorie count such as salad versus ice cream. This study, on the other hand, measured the effects of various foods with exact same caloric content with the only difference being their level of glycemic index.

The study found that after eating food that was rich in refined carbohydrates with high glycemic index there was a rapid increase in the blood glucose which was followed by a dramatic drop in the same a few hours later. This drop in blood glucose was accompanied by a corresponding increase in the person’s feeling of being very hungry and a desire to eat again, as well as strong stimulation of the same brain areas that are implicated in addiction to alcohol and drugs. Put simply, the study indicated that there might be foods which have addictive potential. And, there are specifics of food, other than their level of sweetness or calorie count, which can affect a person’s feelings of hunger and eating behavior, leading to increased eating and obesity. As such, avoidance of such foods with high glycemic index could curb appetite and help overweight people eat less and lose weight. It is not to say that this one study will resolve the controversy involving the concept of food addiction but it definitely provides a new direction for future research and hopefully developing effective interventions for the epidemic of obesity that the most modern world is afflicted with these days.

The above referenced study, published in the June 2013 issue of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, was conducted by Boston Children’s Hospital research team with Dr. David Ludwig, MD, PhD. being the lead investigator. Dr. Ludwig is the Director of New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center.