Food addiction not recognized as disorder

Some products may cause same neurological reactions as drugs, but no evidence supports abuse


ABBY TUTOR | Evergreen Photo Illustration

Some foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt are linked with the same reward centers of the brain that are activated by drugs like heroin and cocaine. Studies surrounding the topic have raised questions about what constitutes an addiction.

MARCUS STEPHEN COX, Evergreen reporter

Food addiction has become an increasingly common concern in recent years, but there is still no clear consensus that the condition is a real phenomenon. While some studies have shown that certain foods create some of the same neurological responses as hard drugs, there is no concrete evidence that they are addictive.

According to an article from WebMD, certain highly palatable foods — those high in sugar, salt or fat — affect the pleasure centers of the brain in the same way as addictive drugs, like cocaine and heroin. The pleasurable response to the food is caused by a chemical like dopamine, which is released by the body and results in the strong desire to consume the food again.

Benjamin Ladd, an assistant professor of psychology at WSU Vancouver who specializes in drug and alcohol abuse, explained the concept of food addiction and its relation to traditional substance abuse.

“I think there are a lot of components about certain types of food — high fat, high sugar — that demonstrates a lot of similarities to drug and alcohol addiction,” Ladd said. “But as of now it’s not recognized as a disorder by the DSM.”

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is a compendium of recognized mental disorders. It regularly reviews new research and admits new disorders, Ladd said.

While food addiction is not recognized, it is possible that it will be accepted with further research.

Ladd said that while food addiction may not have a clinical component, that doesn’t mean the relationship between people and food isn’t concerning. He noted the DSM does recognize eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder.

“When it comes to eating disorders, because of the similarities regarding compulsion and overeating, [they] might be more like addictive disorders,” Ladd said. “Ultimately it was decided that eating disorders were a separate disorder, but the DSM does note some overlap.”

Based on research that has shown certain foods creating similar reactions in the brain as addictive substances, Ladd said he is not convinced of the connection.

In a study titled “Food addiction is real,” researchers examined the effects of “exposure to this message on self-diagnosed food addiction and eating behaviour.”

They gave one group a collection of data that confirmed the reality and prevalence of food addiction. This group was more likely to self-diagnose themselves as having a food addiction than the other group, which was given a set of data that proved food addiction was not real.

“There are a lot of things we do that activate the same part of the brain as drugs and alcohol,” Ladd said, noting exercise also releases endorphins, though in much smaller amounts.

The idea of food addiction raises broader questions of what constitutes an addiction.

“The diagnosis is never addiction,” Ladd said. “It’s substance-use disorder, so it’s a specified condition.”

During his research, Ladd said, he never uses the term addiction. He instead decided to use the accepted, more specific terminology from the DSM of “alcohol problem” or “drug or alcohol disorder.”

“For me, addiction means different things to different people depending on what model they are ascribing to,” Ladd said. “It is a broad term, and I think that’s part of what makes it hard when we start saying what addiction is or [isn’t] when we think of things like food addiction.”