It's easy to claim we're "addicted" to foods like the donuts from down the street or our beloved Thai takeout. But while the concept of food addiction is controversial among researchers, there is growing evidence that highly-processed, fatty, sugary foods like pizza, chocolate, chips and cookies as uniquely problematic foods in people’s lives.
In the latest study published on the subject, Dr. Nicole Avena of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai found that behaviors and attitudes surrounding some types of food closely followed addiction patterns. She hopes her work, recently published in the journal PLOS One, might one day contribute to the next generation of obesity and eating disorder treatment.
Avena asked 504 participants to identify the foods that seemed to cause them the most problems. To define “problem” foods, Avena encouraged participants to use the Yale Food Addiction Scale, which asks participants to count the number of times they’ve agreed with sentences like, "I eat to the point where I feel physically ill” or "I spend a lot of time feeling sluggish or fatigued from overeating,” to help them identify the biggest offenders. Then Avena averaged the scores for different kinds of foods and ranked them from most to least problematic when it came to addiction-like behaviors.
Notice anything? The foods that caused people the most mental distress and physical discomfort are also foods that are highly-processed or are high in added fats and sugars. They’re also more likely to have the highest levels of glycemic load, which is a measurement of how a food will raise a person’s blood sugar level after eating it. That’s no coincidence, said Avena.
“Several studies really do suggest that highly-palatable, highly-processed foods can produce behaviors and changes in the brain that one would use to diagnose an addiction, like drugs and alcohol,” Avena told The Huffington Post.
But those studies are generally animal studies, which means researchers like Avena have a long way to go before proving that certain kinds of food can be addictive substances that damage and re-wire the human brain.
Food addiction isn’t an officially recognized addiction; the closest thing to it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is binge eating disorder. But Avena, who has been researching food addiction for over 15 years, says that hers is the first clinical study to assess the connection between how people eat certain foods and the properties of that food -- whether it be added fat, sugar or its highly-processed manufacture. She hopes that the finding could one day help struggling obese people re-frame their approach to weight loss.
"This could help change the way we approach obesity treatment,” said Avena in a statement about her study. "It may not be a simple matter of 'cutting back' on certain foods, but rather, adopting methods used to curtail smoking, drinking and drug use."
For now, while Avena’s results might elicit a “duh” from overeaters (who ever heard of uncontrollably eating Swiss Chard?), she calls them an important first step in recognizing that only certain foods are linked to addictive eating behavior.
"If someone feels they are addicted to food, there really is no diagnosis a medical doctor could give to that person,” said Avena. "This study is helping advance the literature so that we can help people who have addictive-like eating disorders."