Channeling food addiction into a diet
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09-19-14 Category: Behavioral Health


Eating food has been shown to affect the reward system of the brain, normally tied with substance abuse, but is there really a fine line between being a “foodie” and a food addict?

Unlike other addictive substances, people instinctively have a need to eat every day, blurring the lines considerably between addictive and compulsive behavior. In order to answer the aforementioned question of whether or not food addiction is a real issue, we must first look at how eating food is similar to addiction and more importantly, ways to channel it into healthier eating.

Although the latest edition of the “DSM-V” (“Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders”) now includes binge eating disorder, an actual food addiction is not currently listed as an official psychological disorder, despite showing addictive-like qualities in studies. For example, a study posted by researchers at Yale University in “Archives of General Psychiatry” focused on eating behaviors that resembled addiction, revealing higher levels of neural activity in the reward center of the brain as well as a greater response and cravings for food.

Eating and the reward system

The study used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) on 48 young women of varying weight, measuring their brain’s response to being given a chocolate milkshake. Both the regular and control groups that were served tasteless milkshakes were tested during their initial response upon receiving the shake as well as during their consumption of it. The eating behavior of the participants was assessed via a food addiction scale developed by the lead author of the study, with those scoring higher food addiction scores showing corresponding levels of neural activity in their reward systems.

For the members of the test group that exhibited addictive behavior, dopamine release was observed in mesolimbic sections of the brain (an area in the middle of the brain responsible for memory, motivation and emotion) and ghrelin circuits in the gastrointestinal tract, similar to cases of substance abuse. Like the reward system in the brain, ghrelin uses dopamine to help signal hunger and regulate energy, located on the same G.I. cells as leptin, responsible for producing the opposite effect. Similar to cases of drug and alcohol abuse, the findings suggest that compulsive consumption of food is driven by an over reactive response from the reward system, creating an inflated sense of anticipation of eating.

Developing a healthy eating addiction

If compulsive eating displays so many addictive-like behaviors, then how would one ever achieve “sobriety” in an age where we are bombarded with more fast food than ever? Although surgical solutions like gastric bypasses reduce the amount of enjoyment people get from food in general, there are no known ways of increasing desire for only healthier foods. However, a recent study claims to have successfully trained the brain to prefer healthier, low-calorie foods over junk food.

The study, conducted by researchers at Tufts University and published in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes, involved brain scans on 13 obese people, eight of which were in a weight loss program designed by the university and five who functioned as the control group. The fMRI scans from six months after the initial scan at the beginning of the study revealed changes in the reward system of the brain, including a greater sensitivity, and therefore reward and sense of enjoyment, with healthier foods. Conversely, they also showed a decreased sensitivity to unhealthy, higher-calorie foods.

In addition to providing education on addictive behavior and ways to alter it (like essentially all other forms of therapy), the university’s weight loss program involved high-fiber foods with a low glycemic index (a number that reflects the food’s effect on blood sugar levels). Although the unhealthy neural circuits that long-term consumption of junk food creates has been thought to be near impossible to reverse, this study is proof that people’s preferences for unhealthy food can be changed without surgery.

Whether or not compulsive eating will ever be considered a full addiction remains to be seen, but the path to sobriety seems to be the same as those associated with any other addictive substance. Find and alter the unhealthy patterns of thinking and channel the compulsive energy into something healthier. If you have any questions on food addiction or compulsive behaviors in general, feel free to visit the reviews section of our site or contact us today at (866) 819-0427.


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