Foods high in sugar and fat have a similar effect on the brain as alcohol and other drugs of abuse.
Do you think you’re addicted to chocolate? It’s unlikely you cut yourself off from your friends because you’re too embarrassed to scarf down Hershey bar after Hershey bar in front of them.
And it’s doubtful you bar the door to your home because you don’t want anyone to see the overflow of candy wrappers in your wastebaskets or the gallons of chocolate milk in your fridge.
Your kids probably aren’t going barefoot because you’re blowing your paycheck on Cadbury and Godiva.
Only a true food addict would go to such extreme behavior. And psychologist Caroline Davis appears to have identified some.
Davis and her colleagues at Toronto’s York University recruited 72 obese men and women, ages 25 to 45, and gave them a questionnaire designed to identify people addicted to drugs or alcohol.
The addiction scale, developed by Yale University researchers, focuses on seven symptoms, such as repeatedly trying to quit without success and stopping social and recreational activities.
The researchers made one teensy change on the questionnaire: They replaced the word “drugs” with “food.”
Of the 72 obese people in Davis’s study, 18 fit the criteria for addiction — only their substance of abuse was food, not drugs or alcohol.
“Their relationship with food and how it rules their behavior is dramatic,” says Davis, a psychologist who works in the field of neuroscience.
One apparent food addict in her study had stopped going out with friends or inviting them over. Her fridge was stocked with gallons of Coke, her home littered with boxes from the large pizzas she ordered, two at a time, several nights a week.
‘’She didn’t have a romantic partner because she didn’t want anybody to see this side of her,” Davis says.
About two-thirds of the study volunteers were women, as were about two-thirds of the “food addicts.” The food addicts and the non-addicts were also similar in age and BMI.
But, like drug addicts and alcoholics, the food addicts were more likely to have other psychological issues. They were three times more likely than other study participants to meet the criteria for binge-eating. Depression also was more common among the food addicts, and they exhibited more symptoms of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Animal studies have suggested that foods high in sugar and fat have a similar effect on the brain as alcohol and other drugs of abuse, Davis says. “Alcohol is just fermented sugar. They work on our brain reward pathways in the same way.”
Davis, who presented her findings June 15 at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior, says she has more work to do. Many addicts abuse more than one substance, so she wonders if she would have seen a greater proportion of food addicts if alcoholics and drug addicts had been allowed in her study. She also wants to see whether genes that may be linked to drug abuse are also more common in her food addicts.
Before she got into this line of research, Davis studied excessive exercising. ‘’I absolutely believe there is such a thing as exercise addiction,” she says.
Unfortunately, food addiction and exercise addiction seem to be mutually exclusive, Davis says.
In her experience, gym rats who work out four or five hours a day all have serious food and body image issues. But they’re addicted to starving, not eating.
Photo credit: Exercise TV