Food, Addiction and Obesity: Why We Are All at Risk

The idea that some foods may be addictive, or that some people may be "food addicts," has changed how we may begin to think about the obesity epidemic, but it also poses questions regarding whom this may affect.
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Co-authored by Ashley Gearhardt, Ph.D.

In their new documentary Fed Up, Katie Couric and Laurie David draw attention to the important issues surrounding the food we are eating and why it is making us so sick. With estimates that approximately 75 percent of Americans will be overweight or obese by 2020, no one needs persuading that obesity is a grave public health threat. However, for some people, considerable convincing is still required surrounding one likely cause of this rampant obesity: food addiction.

In our research laboratories, we have been actively studying the connections among food and addiction. The idea of food addiction has gained more credibility over the past few years with the emergence of scientific studies, including our own, showing that certain foods and beverages, or even images of certain foods, can elicit changes in the brain that resemble those seen in drug addicts. There is certainly enough evidence to take the possibility of food addiction seriously, and now is the time that we should be taking action to clearly address this problem. Tens of millions of lives will have been affected by the time evidence is indisputable, millions more than have already been affected who have little or no assistance to combat their addiction. The idea that some foods may be addictive, or that some people may be "food addicts," has changed how we may begin to think about the obesity epidemic, but it also poses questions regarding whom this may affect.

Addicts are often conceptualized as being unable to function in society, and the idea of someone being addicted to highly-palatable foods seems laughable in comparison. Yet these stereotypes about addiction do not match reality. The most common addict in our society -- a smoker -- is likely a fully functioning, law-abiding individual with a job, family, and friends. A smoker's addiction is manageable because this drug is easily accessible with little noticeable intoxication, and a withdrawal syndrome that is not physically life-threatening (as it can be with heroin or even alcohol). However, because of smoking's health-related complications, it is the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the U.S. The reality is that nicotine addiction kills you over time.

Addiction to highly-palatable, processed foods may resemble nicotine addiction. People are not going to overdose on French fries, but addictive eaters may lose years of their lives to chronic diet-related diseases. A recent study in Canada found that 5.4 percent of adults in the general population exhibited signs of food addiction (which is similar to the prevalence of alcohol dependence), and these individuals were more likely to be obese and had higher body fat percentages.

What's more, addictive substances impact more than just addicts. While only about 7 percent of adults reported an addiction to alcohol in 2012, it is the third leading cause of preventable death. Of the approximately 90 percent of adults who try alcohol during their lifetime, most do not become addicted, but many exhibit a sub-clinical response to alcohol. Consuming alcohol excessively or binge drinking compromises health and safety. Due to alcohol's accessibility and low price, the public health consequences cost millions of lives and billions of dollars.

The public health costs of potentially addictive foods may be even more severe. Eating only a few extra hundred calories each day can result in unhealthy weight gain. If enough people experience a sub-clinical addictive response to consume an extra doughnut or a few more handfuls of potato chips, the contribution of addictive foods to obesity could be significant. Unlike alcohol, where there are regulations and restrictions, highly processed foods are accessible almost everywhere and to anyone. This is especially disconcerting when we consider children. Kids are especially vulnerable to the negative effects of addictive substances and early exposure may lead to life-long struggles.

Our modern food environment has been beneficial in many ways, but we must also consider the risks associated with quick fix (e.g., cheap and calorically-dense) foods. Many modern-day foods consist of a combination of ingredients that change the brain in ways that subsequently promote more consumption, fueling our obesity epidemic. If certain foods, or their particular ingredients, are in any way addictive, we need to take this concept seriously. We have much more than weight to lose if we don't.

Nicole Avena, Ph.D. is a faculty member at the New York Obesity Research Center at Columbia University and author book Why Diets Fail (Ten Speed Press). Ashley Gearhardt, Ph.D. is a faculty member at University of Michigan, Department of Psychology.

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