Eating can be addictive - but sugar and fat are not like drugs: Review

By Annie Harrison-Dunn contact

- Last updated on GMT

The problem with food addiction is that it suggests a “passive process which simply befalls an individual”, say researchers
The problem with food addiction is that it suggests a “passive process which simply befalls an individual”, say researchers
People can become addicted to the process of eating but not to consuming specific foods like those high in sugar or fat, according to research.

The study, published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews​, examined the scientific evidence for food addiction as a substance-based addiction similar to that seen with an addiction to drugs – finding that while the process of eating food can be addictive, the brain does not respond to nutrients in the same way as it does to addictive drugs such as heroin or cocaine.

It suggested instead consumers were motivated by the positive feelings they associated with eating. As such the researchers said it was more accurate to categorise the behavioural disorder of over-eating with addictions to things like gambling.

The research concluded that the term ‘food addiction’ was a “misnomer because of the ambiguous connotation of a substance related phenomenon”​. Instead they proposed the term ‘eating addiction’ to stress the behavioural addiction to eating, suggesting future research should try to define criteria for the diagnosis of an eating addiction.

One of the researchers, Professor Suzanne Dickson, said: "There has been a major debate over whether sugar is addictive. There is currently very little evidence to support the idea that any ingredient, food item, additive or combination of ingredients has addictive properties."

‘Cravings’ for ‘addictive’ foods

Dr John Menzies, another of the researchers behind the study, said: "People try to find rational explanations for being over-weight and it is easy to blame food.

"Certain individuals do have an addictive-like relationship with particular foods and they can over-eat despite knowing the risks to their health. More avenues for treatment may open up if we think about this condition as a behavioural addiction rather than a substance-based addiction."

The report suggested that there had been a glut of misassumptions in the public and media surrounding food addictions, with terms like “addictive”​ and “chocoholic”​ and “craving”​ becoming standard.

However, it said it was premature to conclude validity of the food addiction phenotype in humans from the current behavioural and neurobiological evidence gained in rodent models”.

Taking responsibility

The researchers suggested discussions on ‘eating addiction’, currently in its infancy, should ultimately engage politicians and industrial stakeholders, as well as the public, to “overcome the potential risk of becoming ‘eating addicted’ to industrially processed food highly enriched with carbohydrates, salt or fat.​”

They said one key problem with the current framing of this discourse was that a food addiction seemed more like a “passive process which simply befalls an individual”​, as opposed to an eating addiction which placed more emphasis on behavioural patterns.

Source: Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews

Available online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2014.08.016

““Eating addiction”, rather than “food addiction”, better captures addictive-like eating behavior”

Authors: J. Hebebrand, Ö. Albayrak, R. Adan, J. Antel, C. Dieguez, J. de Jong, G. Leng, J. Menzies, J. G. Mercer, M. Murphy, G. van der Plasse, S. L. Dickson

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2 comments

A Rose By Any Other Name ... ?

Posted by Helen Knowles,

This is hair-splitting, people do crave specific foods especially given certain stresses, be they mental or environmental, and e.g. I've seen some in operation. Coming from a slim family, like my mother when I was pregnant I really went to lemons (+ in my case blue cheese on crackers with cocktail gherkins), my daughter also loves lemons and blue cheese (not the gherkins), so some 'likes' are inherent that are not to do with sugar, salt specifically, or fats. People who eat too much of anything may cultivate either from an inherent 'palate' (mores the pity these days of over-eating and obesity)a 'craving' or even like my daughter 'a liking' for certain food tastes. Some one sees eat for the sake of eating, but the choice in food is usually Junk. If one wants to split hairs and cause confusion or denial of addiction to certain types of foods, including genuine chocoholics, then some people over-eat period that'll lead to eventual ill health, but living in an era of 'Image' it is not concern about ill-health that spurs the diet fads but vanity. Who cares if it had a lasting effect, but mostly like booze and fags, if given up for a short period the intake on lapse often is increased. One can genuinely make a distinction between 'Eating adiction and ' Food addictioin', but it's important to understand both.

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What Need to Eat To Survive

Posted by Jill Nussinow,

I am a Registered Dietitian and cooking teacher. I am not a research scientist but live in "the trenches". I disagree about people not being addicted to sugar. We are born to like sugar as it's a large component in breast milk. We are wired to survive.
Unlike other addictions, we must eat to get nutrients. These days, though, nutrients are often packaged with other ingredients in processed foods which often contain sugar, salt and fat. Most people LOVE them (too much) and want more.
Do you know any people who are addicted to broccoli? Eat too much of it and still want more? It makes me wonder about the research.
It's true that we each have to take responsibility for what we eat, yet our current food environments make it easy to overdo it.
I have to go eat my big green salad now. I have an eating addiction to feed.

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