A study published online yesterday in the Archives of General Psychiatry showed that the brains of women who have symptoms of food addiction respond to the prospect of delicious food in much the same way that the brain of a drug addict responds to the prospect of drugs.
Researchers at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Obesity Research and Policy set out to probe the potential parallel between food addiction and substance dependence. The former isn’t yet recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a psychiatric disorder, while the latter is defined by a set of clear criteria.
Before this study, Ashley Gearhardt, a doctoral student at Yale, had devised a tool for assessing food addiction. She based her 25-point questionnaire (“I have found that I have elevated desire for or urges to consume certain foods when I cut down or stop eating them,” for instance, and “My behavior with respect to food and eating causes significant distress.”) on that used to diagnose substance dependence.
According to the Yale Food Addiction Scale, as the instrument is called, some of the 39 young women included in the study showed signs of being addicted to food. While some were lean, some obese, and some in between, their weight wasn’t related to their likelihood or degree of food addiction.
Gearhardt and her team used functional MRI to record brain activity as the women were shown images of yummy chocolate shakes and of a clear, taste-free solution. MRI images were also recorded while the women actually sampled those beverages. (The study explains that the clear formula was made to replicate saliva, as the taste of water actually triggers activity in some brain receptors.)
As was expected, the parts of the brain associated with anticipation and craving were activated by the image of the chocolate shake among women with symptoms of food addiction. But once they tasted the shake, the parts of their brain that should signal them to slow down showed decreased activity, essentially encouraging them to seek more chocolate shake.
The study acknowledges several shortcomings, including its small sample size and the fact that all its subjects were women. But it’s another plank in the platform supporting the idea that some people are obese because they are literally, physically addicted to food, having to contend day-in and day-out with all the food stimuli our society throws their way — not because they simply lack self-control.
As readers of my “Eat, Drink and Be Healthy” column may recall, this is an issue I grapple with: When it comes to matters such as weight management, I’m a big believer in personal responsibility. But when I interviewed food addict Michael Prager last fall, he helped me see that it’s not an either/or proposition. I’ll never forget what he told me:
“When I find out I have an illness, I take on responsibility to make it better. I have no respect for people who use [their addiction] as a crutch.”
[Prager adds,] “Nobody ever held me down and put a doughnut in my mouth.”