The same kinds of impulsive behaviours that lead some people to abuse alcohol and drugs may also be an important contributor to an unhealthy relationship with food, the new research published in Appetite.
Led by James MacKillop from the University of Georgia in the US, the study examined the interrelationships between impulsive personality traits, food addiction, and Body Mass Index (BMI), finding that people with impulsive personalities are more likely to report higher levels of food addiction—a compulsive pattern of eating that is similar to drug addiction—and this in turn was associated with obesity.
"The notion of food addiction is a very new one, and one that has generated a lot of interest," explained MacKillop. "My lab generally studies alcohol, nicotine and other forms of drug addiction, but we think it's possible to think about impulsivity, food addiction and obesity using some of the same techniques."
The study used two different scales, the Yale Food Addiction Scale and the UPPS-P Impulsive Behavior Scale, to determine levels of food addiction and impulsivity among the 233 participants.
Researchers then compared these results with each participant's body mass index, which is used to determine obesity.
The team revealed that individuals who reported acting more rashly when experiencing strong levels of positive (positive urgency) and negative (negative urgency) emotions, endorsed more symptoms of addictive eating.
"Similarly, individuals who reported more food addiction symptoms indicated that they often did things without thinking (lack of Premeditation) and that they had difficulty following through with boring and/or challenging tasks (lack of Perseverance)," they said.
"Our study shows that impulsive behaviour was not necessarily associated with obesity, but impulsive behaviours can lead to food addiction," explained MacKillop - adding that just because someone exhibits impulsive behaviour, does not mean they will become obese, but an increase in certain impulsive behaviours is linked to food addiction - which appeared to be the driving force behind higher BMI in study participants.
Indeed, MacKillop said that his teams results are among the first forays into the study of addictive eating habits and how they contribute to obesity.
"Modern neuroscience has helped us understand how substances like drugs and alcohol co-opt areas of the brain that evolved to release dopamine and create a sense of happiness or satisfaction," he said. "And now we realise that certain types of food also hijack these brain circuits and lay the foundation for compulsive eating habits that are similar to drug addiction."
The team now plans to expand their research by analysing the brain activity of individuals as they make decisions about food.
Volume 73, 1 February 2014, Pages 45–50, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2013.10.008
"Interrelationships among impulsive personality traits, food addiction, and Body Mass Index"
Authors:Cara M. Murphy, Monika K. Stojek, James MacKillop