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Food addiction: More than an excuse to overeat?

Posted Oct. 28, 2013, at 12:12 p.m.

Is food addiction anything more than just an excuse to overeat?

Many people claim they are addicted to chocolate, sugar or sweets in general. I’m never quite sure how to respond when people make this claim, because I’ve never been aware of any chemical property of chocolate that’s addicting, and sugar is a carbohydrate present in all fruits and vegetables. Sugar is most highly concentrated in sugar beets and sugar cane. The sucrose from sugar beets and sugar cane is identical, and the same sucrose present in fruits and vegetables. So if someone is addicted to sugar (sucrose), doesn’t it hold true they they should be consuming lots of fruits and vegetables?

What exactly does “food addiction” mean? The term actually comes from research related to recreational drug use. Recreational drugs produce sensations of pleasure and drug addiction involves cravings and feelings of lack of control, strong desire, and being uncomfortable at times. Can food produce these same kinds of pleasure? Can food cause the same types of behavioral effects that drugs do?

Claims that people can get “hooked” on certain foods that make them obese is becoming an overly simplistic explanation for overeating, according to professor John Blundell, chair in psychobiology at the Institute of Psychological Science at the University of Leeds. He further states that evidence for the concept of food addiction comes from a combination of anecdotal observations, scientific claims, personal opinions, experimental data, deductions and beliefs.

A recent study conducted by the British Nutrition Foundation found that 88 percent of consumers believed that sweet-tasting foods are addictive. Research on newborns has shown that we have an innate preference for sweet-tasting foods from birth. Many people believe that their cravings for specific foods are driven by a physiological need. There are many factors that influence desire for certain types of foods. I’m sure it isn’t a secret to anyone that food is a powerful source of pleasure and in itself can be a reward.

At a recent conference in London, Dr. Blundell discussed the hedonic control of eating. He is a fascinating presenter, and although I didn’t attend the conference, I was able to preview it online. He describes hedonics as the pleasure of eating and sensitivity to the reward features of food. In looking at the relationship between food reward and obesity, he explains the role of dopamine, which came out of research with addictive drugs.

Research that looked at the actual levels of dopamine concentration in people based on body mass index showed that people with the lowest dopamine concentrations have the largest BMI, so there is an inverse correlation; high BMI, low dopamine concentration. One would believe that a person would be compelled to eat to reinforce a positive response in the brain. What is happening is that obese people are overeating to get their fix of reward from food.

Dr. Blundell summarized his presentation with the suggestion that binge eating, cravings, and compulsive eating can all be viewed as expressing some of the symptoms similar to food addiction. The overconsumption of food can come from the powerful reinforcing effects that food provides. He suggested that we use caution in applying the term “food addict” to obese people.

Most importantly, we should recognize the powerful effect that foods have to generate pleasure, and on the brain itself.

Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator at Penobscot Community Health Care in Bangor. She provides nutrition consultant services through Mainely Nutrition in Athens. Read her columns and post questions at bangordailynews.com or email her at GeorgiaMaineMSRDCDE@gmail.com.

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