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18th September 2014

Addicted to food?

Addicted to foodDoes the term ‘chocoholic’ have some scientific basis? Can we develop food cravings and addiction to substances in foods?

Is sugar the new cocaine?

There has been major debate over whether foods like sugar are addictive. For years, food addiction has been blamed by some popular media for the obesity crisis. But an international team of scientists has recently concluded from a scientific review that there is little evidence that people become addicted to substances in foods in the same way that someone becomes addicted to drugs.

The researchers, as part of the EU funded NeuroFAST consortium studying the neurobiology of eating behaviour, addiction and stress, report that there is currently very little evidence to support the idea that any food item, additive, ingredient or combination of ingredients has addictive properties. The brain does not respond to nutrients in the same way as it does to addictive drugs such as cocaine or heroin. Instead, the researchers suggest that people can develop a psychological compulsion to eat, driven by the positive feelings that the brain associates with eating. Certain foods, like those high in fat and sugar, may be highly palatable and have ‘rewarding properties'.

Perceived addiction is no excuse for overeating

Some individuals seem to have an addiction-like relationship with particular foods that they overeat despite knowing the risks of weight gain and to health. The researchers suggest the term ‘food addiction’ is a misnomer and propose that ‘eating addiction’ may better capture the addiction-like eating behaviour that these individuals describe. They suggest the focus should firmly be on the behavioural component of overeating rather than food addiction. This implies a passive “I can’t help it” process, and can be used as an excuse for overeating, which the individual may perceive as being beyond their control.

Understanding overeating to help combat obesity

People will always try to find a simple rational explanation for being overweight, and it is perhaps too easy to blame food addiction. In the battle against obesity it is important to keep adding to our scientific understanding of why people may overeat and to examine the concept of addiction critically. The researchers suggest we move the focus away from food itself and towards the individual’s relationship with eating. They conclude that more avenues for treatment may open up if we think about this condition as a behavioural issue rather than a substance-based addiction.

Ayela Spiro

Nutrition Scientist, British Nutrition Foundation

Ayela is a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, where her role involves providing expert advice on nutrition and health issues to a number of key audiences including consumers, health professionals, charities, the media and the food industry. At the heart of her work is the communication of nutrition science that promotes understanding of nutrition and health and contributes to the improved wellbeing of all. Read more

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