Brain scans have shown that in people with food addiction, eating addictive foods (most of them heavy in sugar, caffeine or fat) trigger brain responses that look very similar to responses to alcohol or hard drugs.

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On Nutrition

No one doubts the reality — or seriousness — of addiction to alcohol, tobacco or other drugs, but bring up food addiction and you might get a few eye rolls. However, research suggests that food addiction is far more than just an excuse for overeating.

One conundrum with food addiction is that unlike alcohol or drugs, we need food. We depend on food to live. There’s a saying in Overeaters Anonymous: “When you are addicted to alcohol, you put the tiger in the cage and leave it there in order to recover. When you are addicted to food, you put the tiger in the cage but take it out three times a day for a walk.”

Who is more likely to experience food addiction? Adults age 35 or older, women and people who are overweight or obese. It’s been suggested that food addiction, and subsequent overeating, could be one cause of increase in obesity around the world. I recently attended a presentation by Cheryl Forberg, R.D., the nutritionist for “The Biggest Loser.” She said that most of the show’s participants have some type of food addiction.

Perhaps not surprisingly, commonly addictive foods contain sugar, caffeine or fat. Milkshakes, soda, pizza or French fries are more likely to be addictive — broccoli and salmon are not. When someone goes from wanting soda to needing it, food addiction may be the issue.

Much of the research on food addiction comes out of Yale University, which led to the development of the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS). Brain scans have shown that in people with food addiction, eating addictive foods triggers brain responses that look very similar to responses to alcohol or hard drugs.

In one study of women who met the YFAS criteria for food addiction, simply seeing photos of a milkshake caused the areas of the brain associated with craving and motivation to light up. When they actually drank the shake, the area of the brain associated with self-control showed little activity.

The commonly used definition of food addiction takes its cue from drug and alcohol addiction. Someone with a food addiction builds tolerance to the problem food, so that it takes more and more of it to be satisfied, and they experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop eating that food.

They are likely to eat larger amounts of the food than intended, and keep doing it even though they know it may be damaging their health. They may devote significant time and energy trying to avoid the food without success. On the other hand, pursuit of that food may take them away from other activities.

Not all overeating is due to food addiction, and not all people who are overweight are addicted to food. There are many reasons someone might overeat on a regular basis. Some people tend to eat mindlessly, with little awareness of how much they are eating. Some people eat excessively because of a diagnosable eating disorder, such as binge eating disorder or bulimia nervosa.

Treatment for food addiction typically involves abstinence from problem foods and eating behaviors. In some cases, identifying and avoiding trigger foods may be enough.

In more severe cases, counseling or participation in a 12-step group like Overeaters Anonymous is necessary. If someone is struggling with both food addiction and an eating disorder, it’s important to seek specific treatment for the eating disorder.