Food Addiction Explored as a Possible Root of Obesity
> 7/10/2007 10:48:49 AM

At a recent conference for dietary specialists sponsored by Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, experts debated a concept that, while not quite new, has lately recieved a heightened degree of attention: food addiction. While there's no specific diagnostic definition available, it seems obvious that certain individuals have a compulsive desire to eat that moves well beyond the point of sustenance and nutrition into self-stimulation and, in cruder terms, gluttony.

So are those who gain almost all of their material pleasure from food, basing their days around meals and eating purely for the near-narcotic joy it brings them, truly addicted in the traditional sense? Some clearly exhibit the classic behavioral deficits of the substance abuser: continuing behaviors with the full knowledge of their negative effects and a true desire to curb them, constant thoughts revolving around one's substance of choice, binge and purge tendencies, and pervasive guilt over a state many view as a preventable result of various personal failings. These behaviors may also arise in response to outside stimuli: stress, depression, exhaustion, family troubles etc. can lead one to the ice cream aisle. While there's no question that some harbor self-medicating, destructive addictions to certain foods that largely fall into the "comfort" class, most obese individuals cannot point to this as a primary causal factor. The major roots of obesity are quite simple: unhealthy dietary habits, genetic predispositions and a lack of exercise.

Some foods, largely those overstuffed with sugars, oils and fats both natural and artificial, stimulate some of the same neural pleasure/reward centers as illicit substances, but the "highs" are nowehere near as extreme or directly debilitating. Some find the very concept of "food addiction" to be an act of stretching the term's definition beyond its breaking point: "Virtually every pleasure we encounter — listening to beautiful music, sex, even exercise — is associated with surges of dopamine similar to those during a high-fat meal. But we call these pleasures, not addictions. Scientists cannot look at dopamine levels or brain scans and tell the difference." Others, pointing to the chemical similarities between food and substance habits, alternately opine that food addiction is not only very real but under-recognized and deserving of far more attention from the medical establishment.

One of the major issues brought up in the obesity debate is the widespread use of cheaper, nutrient-free and decidedly unhealthy replacement ingredients, particularly in processed and preserved foods. High fructose corn syrup, trans-fats, and various preservatives have very obviously benefitted manufacturers at the expense of the American citizenry: "in 1980, just after high fructose corn syrup was introduced in mass quantities, relatively stable obesity rates began to climb. By 2000, they had doubled." One might think that cutting down on sodas and pastries would at least partially solve this problem, but these products have made their insidious way into so many of the foods we consume every day that one would find avoiding them altogether to be all but impossible.

In short, though certain foods, regularly consumed in sizable quantities over time, can produce addictive behaviors in a few individuals, labeling this "addiction" as a primary cause of our current obesity epidemic is overemphasizing its influence and removing the focus of our discourse from its rightful objects: genetic predispositions, sedentary lifestyles and a reliance on convenient, low-quality, highly processed foods.

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