Compulsive eaters think like addicts

YALE (US) — Both lean and overweight people who are addicted to food have brain patterns that are similar to those of drug addicts.

The findings—published in the Archives of General Psychiatry—are from the first study to explore whether lean as well as obese individuals who exhibit symptoms of addictive eating behavior have similar neural responses.

Researchers at Yale University asked 48 healthy adolescent women ranging from lean to obese to complete the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS), which applies the diagnostic criteria for substance dependence to eating behavior. Using brain-imaging procedures such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers examined the relation of food addiction symptoms, as assessed by the YFAS, with the women’s brain activity in response to food-related tasks.

The first task looked at how the brain responded to cues signaling the impending delivery of a highly palatable food (chocolate milkshake) versus cues signaling the impending delivery of a tasteless control solution. The second test looked at brain activity during the actual intake of the chocolate milkshake versus the tasteless solution.

Both lean and obese participants with higher food addiction scores showed different brain activity patterns than those with lower food addiction scores. In response to the anticipated receipt of food, participants with higher food addiction scores showed greater activity in parts of the brain responsible for cravings and the motivation to eat, but less activity in the regions responsible for inhibiting urges such as the desire to drink a milkshake.

Similar to drug addicts, individuals exhibiting signs of food addiction may struggle with increased cravings and stronger motivations to eat in response to food cues and may feel more out-of-control when eating highly palatable foods.

“The findings of this study support the theory that compulsive eating may be driven in part by an enhanced anticipation of food rewards and that addicted individuals are more likely to be physiologically, psychologically, and behaviorally reactive to triggers such as advertising,” says Ashley Gearhardt, clinical psychology doctoral student and lead author.

“The possibility that food-related cues may trigger pathological properties is of special concern in the current food environment where highly palatable foods are constantly available and heavily marketed.”

The authors assert that efforts to change the current food environment may be critical to successful weight loss and prevention efforts since food cues may take on motivational properties similar to drug cues. The current emphasis on personal responsibility as the reason for increasing obesity rates may have minimal effectiveness as palatable food consumption may be accompanied with a loss-of-control for individuals exhibiting signs of food addiction.

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