Can you be addicted to food?

is carrot cake addictive?

If food addiction real?  I pondered that question when I confronted the half-eaten carrot cake in the frig this morning.  Couldn’t resist a bite.  Or two.  Well, maybe a sliver.  Carrot cake as crack?

The main problem with the idea of food addiction is this: we have to eat.  The idea of food addiction makes about as much sense as addiction to oxygen or water.  We need these to live.

Nevertheless, food addiction is blamed for out of control eating by people eager to explain the obesity epidemic, or their own behavior around certain foods, like carrot cake.  A presentation at the Food and Nutrition Conference in early October addressed this very topic, and afterwards, I was slightly convinced that some foods, for some vulnerable people, may affect the brain in ways that mimic addiction.

Dr. Gene-Jack Wang, MD, was one of the speakers.  He uses MRI and PET scans of the brain to investigate similarities between the brains of drug addicts and the brains of morbidly obese people.  His research shows that obese people do have addict-like brain chemistry in reward centers, which could drive excessive eating of highly palatable food: sweets, junk food, salty snacks, desserts, carrot cake, etc.  Binge eating these items would make obesity more likely and make it very hard for the person to control weight.

A study from Yale, reported last year, showed that female subjects who described themselves as food addicted had increased brain activity in reward centers when they saw photos of palatable food.  But when they actually tasted a chocolate shake, their brain reward centers under-reacted, compared to subjects who were not described as food addicts.  If this sounds strange, it is.  But here’s what happened: it was hard for the addict-type subjects to stop drinking the shake.  They weren’t getting enough of that “reward” reaction, so they kept on eating, trying to get some satisfaction.  It’s easy to see how a person in that situation could keep right on eating a highly palatable food, well beyond feeling full or getting enough calories.

I’ve written about this before, in relation to another study of eating disordered subjects.  Obese binge eaters were shown to get little reward from eating, leading them to keep right on eating.

So back to the question: can we be addicted to food?  The American Society of Addiction Medicine offers this definition of addiction:

Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation .. and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological .. manifestations.  Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving…

Well, that sounds a lot like the behavior of some binge eaters.  Preliminary conclusion: some people probably react to highly palatable food in an addict-like manner.  But many other people don’t.  Plenty of people can eat a piece of carrot cake or a chocolate shake or handful of potato chips and be satisfied and done.  Few people can use highly addictive drugs once or twice and be done with them.  So in my opinion, the jury is still out on whether food addiction exists.  However, if you feel you’re one of those food addicted types, and you can’t resist chips or chocolate shakes or ice cream or carrot cake, then my best advice is this:

Out of Sight, Out of Mind.

If seeing is eating, don’t buy tempting junk food.  Don’t keep it in the house or your desk or your car.  Don’t indulge in just a little, thinking you’ll be able to stop.  Protect yourself by eating a balanced diet, full of vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and fresh fruit.  Don’t tart up your food with artificial sweeteners.  Drink lots of water.  Be physically active.

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