Toops' Scoops: Scientific Proof that Food Addictions Exist

April 20, 2011
Our News and Trends editor reports on food addictions…and her love for hot fudge sundaes.

OK, it's time to 'fess up. I'm an addictive personality. In the 1960s, when everyone was experimenting with drugs and Jim Morrison offered me a hit, I had to reluctantly say no thank you because I knew from experience I wouldn't be able to control myself. It's too bad Jim didn't follow the same advice.
I figured early on that my addiction was particularly strong for food. If there was a cup of coffee, chocolate, potato chips or a pint of full-fat ice cream anywhere in the vicinity, I'd find it and take it home to finish off in one pleasurable sitting.

Even though I'm only five feet tall, I can usually out-eat a six-foot man when there is a snack nearby. And when I go to the supermarket to pick up a loaf of bread, I'm there for half an hour and my receipt registers $100, because I can't resist the delicious-looking foods and beverages put in my way on the path to the bread aisle.

Now I don't have to feel guilty anymore. A study in the April issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, which included 39 healthy women who ranged in weight from lean to overweight or obese (women with eating disorders were not included), found there may be no clear line between addictive and normal responses -- adding to the evidence that all "addictions" act on the same motivational system in the brain, reports Time HealthLand.

Yale researchers, led by Ashley Gearhardt and Kelly Brownell, asked participants to complete the Yale Food Addiction Scale to test for signs of food addictions – including frequent worry about overeating, eating to the point of feeling sick, difficulty functioning due to attempts to control overeating or simply overeating.

Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), they looked at the women's brain activity in response to food. One task was to look at pictures of either a luscious chocolate shake or a bland, no-calorie solution. For another brain-scan task, the women drank the shake -- made with four scoops of vanilla Häagen-Dazs ice cream, 2% milk and 2 tablespoons of Hershey's chocolate syrup -- or the no-calorie control solution, designed to be as flavorless as possible (water was not used because it actually activates taste receptors).

When viewing images of the ice cream, scientists found the women with three or more symptoms of food addiction showed more brain activity in regions involved with pleasure and craving than women who had one or no such symptoms. These areas included the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex and medial orbitofrontal cortex -- the same regions that light up in drug addicts who are shown images of drug paraphernalia or drugs. The women also had reduced activity in brain regions involved with self-control (the lateral orbitofrontal cortex), when they ate the ice cream.

Thus, women with symptoms of food addiction had higher expectations that a chocolate shake would be pleasurable when they anticipated eating it, and were less able to stop eating it once they started. It is notable, however, there was no decrease in pleasure-related regions of the brain when they actually consumed the ice cream.

Researchers also found food addiction symptoms and brain responses to food were not associated with weight: Some overweight women showed no food addiction symptoms, and some normal-weight women did. That led them to conclude that addictions are not simple; they involve variations in levels of desire and in levels of ability to control that desire, and these factors may change in relation to social situations and stress. Patterns are similar in substance dependence and addictive-like eating behavior -- elevated activation in reward circuitry in response to cues and reduced activation of inhibitory regions in response to intake.

Neither heroin nor Häagen-Dazs leads to addiction in the majority of users, yet there are certain situations that may prompt binges in people who otherwise have high levels of self-control. So the answers to addiction may lie not in the substances themselves but in the relationship people have with them and the settings in which they are consumed.

So don't blame me if I eat up all your prototype samples at IFT. I'm innocent; it's the fault of my genetic makeup. And now I'm going to happily, and guiltlessly, finish my hot fudge sundae.

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