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Getting food addiction research down to a science

How many scientific studies does it take to have food listed alongside drugs or alcohol as having addictive qualities? The Food Addiction Institute has compiled a bibliography of 2,733 peer-reviewed studies on aspects of food addiction. Sure, sugar is addictive for babies as well as for the aged whose taste buds are more sensitive to sugar, salt, and spices. But is food addiction also genetic?

Getting food addiction research down to a science.
Anne Hart, photography.

According to Dr, David Kessler, former Commissioner of the U.S. Food And Drug Administration, about 50% of the obese, 30% of those overweight, and 20% who are at what we consider a healthy weight, are actually addicted to a specific food, combinations of foods or, in some cases, volume of food in general. (Kessler, 2010). At least half of the obesity crisis would be better understood and more suitably named the food addiction crisis, notes the website of the The Food Addiction Institute.

Human genetic research, animal studies, brain imaging and biochemical studies of the digestive processes all indicate that some people could experience addictions to food, explains a recent article, "New 21 UC Berkeley - The Science of Food Addiction." Researchers have counted more than 70 million food-addicted adults in the U.S. according to estimates by David Kessler, professor of pediatrics epidemiology and biostatistics at UC San Francisco Medical School and a former commissioner of the U.S Food and Drug Administration, according to that UC Berkely article.

For example, researchers in Sacramento, Davis, and Berkeley, California at UC Berkeley study the science of food addiction, according to the recent article, "New 21 UC Berkeley - The Science of Food Addiction." One of the recent studies follows a middle-aged Sacramento-based woman in a high-ranking, creative career in public relations.

Food addiction study is a science. For example, The Food Addiction Institute, is a non-profit organization that tracks research in the field, defines food addiction as a chemical dependence caused by changes in the brain in reaction to the biochemistry of a specific food, several foods, or volume of food.

In another study from a different university, the same kinds of impulsive behavior that lead some people to abuse alcohol and other drugs may also be an important contributor to an unhealthy relationship with food, according to new research from the University of Georgia. In a paper published recently in the journal "Appetite." Also. you may wish to check out the abstract of another study, "Functional food. Product development, marketing and consumer acceptance—A review."

In a paper published recently in the journal Appetite, researchers found that people with impulsive personalities were more likely to report higher levels of food addiction—a compulsive pattern of eating that is similar to drug addiction—and this in turn was associated with obesity.

"The notion of food addiction is a very new one, and one that has generated a lot of interest," said James MacKillop, the study's principal investigator and associate professor of psychology in UGA's Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, according to the January 24, 2014 news release, Impulsive personality linked to food addiction. "My lab generally studies alcohol, nicotine and other forms of drug addiction, but we think it's possible to think about impulsivity, food addiction and obesity using some of the same techniques."

A third of adults in the USA are obese

More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, putting them at greater risk for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. The estimated annual medical cost of obesity was $147 billion in 2008 U.S. dollars, and obese people pay an average of $1,429 more in medical expenses than those of normal weight.

MacKillop and doctoral students Cara Murphy and Monika Stojek hope that their research will ultimately help physicians and other experts plan treatments and interventions for obese people who have developed an addiction to food, paving the way for a healthier lifestyle.

The study used two different scales, the Yale Food Addiction Scale and the UPPS-P Impulsive Behavior Scale, to determine levels of food addiction and impulsivity among the 233 participants. Researchers then compared these results with each participant's body mass index, which is used to determine obesity.

"Our study shows that impulsive behavior was not necessarily associated with obesity, but impulsive behaviors can lead to food addiction," MacKillop said in the news release.

Just because someone exhibits impulsive behavior does not mean they will become obese, but an increase in certain impulsive behaviors is linked to food addiction, which appeared to be the driving force behind higher BMI in study participants

These results are among the first forays into the study of addictive eating habits and how they contribute to obesity. Working with a grant from UGA's Obesity Initiative, MacKillop's team now plans to expand their research by analyzing the brain activity of different individuals as they make decisions about food.

The contemporary food industry has created a wide array of eating options, and foods that are high in fat, sodium, sugar and other flavorful additives and appear to produce cravings much like illicit drugs, MacKillop said. Now they will work to see how those intense cravings might play a role in the development of obesity.

"Modern neuroscience has helped us understand how substances like drugs and alcohol co-opt areas of the brain that evolved to release dopamine and create a sense of happiness or satisfaction," he said in the news release. "And now we realize that certain types of food also hijack these brain circuits and lay the foundation for compulsive eating habits that are similar to drug addiction."

You also may be interested in the abstract of another study, "Effects of stevia, aspartame, and sucrose on food intake, satiety, and postprandial glucose and insulin levels." Or check out the research on healthy eating attitudes, "Chocolate cake. Guilt or celebration? Associations with healthy eating attitudes, perceived behavioral control, intentions and weight-loss."

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