Is food addiction real?
There's been lots of talk about food addiction lately. A recent study suggesting that alcoholism and obesity may share an underlying predisposition to addiction got plenty of press. USA Weekend ran a short piece this weekend about how to work around a food addiction. Mehmet Oz is in the midst of a three-part series about food addiction. And I write about it in this week's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column.
But for all the fanfare surrounding food addiction, the condition isn't fully embraced as legitimate in medical and psychological circles. Some argue that our complex relationship with food can't be easily boiled down to an addiction, as so many factors are in play. Others maintain that allowing for "food addiction" ends up absolving people of the personal responsibility to manage their food consumption. And some experts say the science to support the notion of food addiction remains incomplete.
Still, scientific evidence that food addiction is a real phenomenon is mounting. Brain scans, for instance, have shown that eating certain foods (salty, sweet and fatty foods seem particularly "addictive") activates the same receptors in the brain that addictive drugs do.
Even if there is such a thing as food addiction, it's not likely that all or even most of the people in the U.S. who are obese or overweight suffer from such an affliction. While some people may have genetic or other forms of predisposition to addiction, others of us just plain overindulge, and we can't blame our neurochemistry for our decisions to eat more than we should.
But for some overweight people -- including Michael Prager, author of the book "Fat Boy, Thin Man" -- viewing one's troubled relationship with food as an addiction is the first and necessary step toward improving that relationship. Prager, who once weighed 365 pounds and for the past 20 years has weighed 210, was reluctant to accept the idea that he was addicted to food, but once he did so, he found that treating his addiction as an addiction led to his finally shedding those extra pounds and keeping them off for the long term.
As I write in my column, I was among the skeptics who felt food addiction was a copout. But after meeting Prager and reading his book, my view has shifted. Being addicted to food doesn't mean enjoying big quantities of delicious treats. It's more like being a slave to food, adjusting your schedule and compromising relationships with other people to accommodate your cravings, needing more and more of certain foods to achieve the satisfaction you seek, and not even particularly enjoying the food you cram into your mouth. Those all sound like addictive behaviors to me.
In the end, it almost doesn't matter whether science ends up demonstrating that food addiction's a bona fide malady; If people like Prager are finally able to take control of an unhealthy relationship with food by labeling it an addiction and treating it as such, more power to them.
But if research does determine that food addiction is real, that could lead to more and better treatments. And that would be a good thing for scores of individuals and, I think, for the nation as a whole.
Jennifer LaRue Huget
| January 18, 2011; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: Alcohol and Drugs, Drug Abuse, Eating disorders, Neurological disorders, Nutrition and Fitness, Obesity, Psychology, Weight loss
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