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Can food be just as addictive as drugs? That’s the conclusion of a new study published in Archives of General Psychiatry, a medical journal published by the American Medical Association.

Yale researchers studied 48 women who ranged from lean to obese. Each woman completed a standard food addiction assessment, then using MRI imaging scientists examined the subjects' brain activity while they were shown and then drank a chocolate milkshake. They compared these images to seeing then drinking a tasteless beverage. 

The brains of both thin and overweight women who scored higher on the food addiction test exhibited patterns similar to those seen in drug addicts — there was greater activity in region of the brain responsible for cravings, and less activity in the regions that curb urges.

So does this prove that food is addictive? Well, it certainly shows that the brain seems to react in a similar way, although the trouble is of course that while you can live without alcohol or drugs you can’t live without food.

There are pros and cons to banishing foods you feel addicted to (typically refined carbs, sugar, chocolate). You may feel better physically and emotionally, but then just one bite could cause an out of control spiral until the food is banished again  — a vicious cycle. Some people are able to “budget” certain foods into their diet in a planned way, such as going to a bakery and buying one cookie. For others it’s nearly impossible to do this, as it’s an all or nothing issue — no cookies or a whole box in one sitting.

If you suffer from food addiction the most important thing you can do is not beat yourself up. The research indicates there is a strong physiological component to this, but it’s also psychological and social. We’re practically taught from birth to use food to cope with feelings and it’s very socially acceptable, even encouraged. These three very powerful influences can make each day feel like an uphill battle.  

I know it isn’t easy but I have three suggestions for trying to stave off triggers:

•First ask your friends, co-workers and relatives to agree to a no food gifts policy — most of our loved ones bring us candy or cupcakes out of caring, but this can be agonizing for people with food addictions.

•Consider going grocery shopping with a buddy. When alone many of my clients feel extremely triggered, especially by holiday candy displays or bakeries. If you shop with someone else, you may be much more likely to get through your shopping trip without giving into those foods that seem to be calling your name.    

•And finally when watching TV get into the habit of distracting yourself if you feel triggered by food ads — spend that time playing with or grooming your pet, unload the dishwasher or fold laundry.

So what’s your take on this topic? Do you think food can be addictive? Do you ever feel out of control yourself? Please share your thoughts!


Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.

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