Food Addiction And Drug Addiction: Brain Activity Shows Similarities, Study Finds
Researchers Look At The Brains Of Food Addicts
BY WILLIAM WEIR, [email protected]
The Hartford Courant
April 4, 2011, 4:27 p.m.
A new study from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity suggests that a chocolate milkshake and a line of cocaine might not be so different.
The study, published Monday in the Archives of General Psychiatry, found that addictions to food and drugs result in similar activity in the brain.
"This past year we got interested in the idea of food addiction and the neural process," said lead researcher Ashley Gearhardt, a clinical psychology doctoral student at Yale University. "We just wanted to get down and deep into whether people really experience food addiction."
The study included 48 women with an average age of 21 who ranged from lean to obese. They took a test developed at the Rudd Center to measure food addiction, based on an established test for measuring drug addiction. The test includes statements such as, "I find that when I start eating certain foods, I end up eating much more than I had planned," and respondents rate how closely the statements match their own experiences.
With functional magnetic resonant imaging (fMRI), a brain imaging procedure, the researchers examined brain activity when the subjects were shown, and then drank, a chocolate milkshake. The results were compared with the subjects' brain's response to the anticipation and consumption of a tasteless solution.
What they found was that the brains of subjects who scored higher on the food addiction scale exhibited neural activity similar to that seen in drug addicts, with greater activity in brain regions responsible for cravings and less activity in the regions that curb urges. The researchers also found that the brain activity indicative of addiction was found in both lean and obese subjects who scored high in the test for food addiction.
Gearhardt says the findings suggest that certain triggers, such as advertisements for food, have not just a psychological, but a physiological, effect on certain people.
"We found that the high food addiction group showed low inhibition: They have less control in their consumption, and that's something we've seen also in addicts," she said.
That's especially significant, she said, when so many processed foods trigger strong reward responses in our brains.
Our response to high-sugar, high-fat foods once helped us survive as a species, she said, "but today, foods are so much more rewarding than anything our brains have evolved to handle." Although there are very few natural foods that are high in both fat and sugar, she said, many processed foods offer both. She compared these foods to strong drugs like cocaine.
"These are foods that really can sort of hijack our brains."
Although the study highlights the physiological nature of food addiction, Gearhardt said it's still unknown whether people are born with a predilection for food addiction or develop it through their behavior.