This article is written by Mobiefit’s nutrition expert, Shwetha Bhatia. She is also the founder of Gym & Tonic, where she can easily customize workouts according to the needs and requirements of her clients.

Is food no longer a friend, given the high percentile of addictive properties it shows? But unlike other forms of substance abuse; such as alcohol, drug abuse or gambling; food is necessary for basic survival. However,  recent studies suggest that just like how the brain is wired to reward pathways that involved in alcohol and drug addiction, it also exhibits the ghrelin pathway which regulates hunger and food intake.

Based on these studies, could we now imply that the main reason behind the rise in obesity could be food addiction?
Is has been seen that obese individuals indeed show ‘addictive-like’ properties with regard to overeating. According to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2011, some patients with addictive-like properties showed a different brain response in anticipation of a chocolate milkshake, compared to patients who did not display such behaviours. Another study showed that teenagers with greater responsivity to food cues, such as looking at or thinking about food, were associated not only with weight gain but also with an increased risk for substance abuse later.

Is has been seen that obese individuals indeed show ‘addictive-like’ properties with regard to overeating.

What causes this?

One major difference could be in the brain itself. The regions of the brain which inhibit food intake may be overridden in such individuals. Also, it may be seen that once the food is eaten, these regions of the brain which were highly activated initially (while thinking about the food) may not respond as well. This leads to the theory that individuals who experience less reward from food intake may overeat to compensate for this reward deficit. Some studies also say that obesity per-se may cause a reduced reward response upon eating, which further activates the vicious cycle of overeating and becoming obese.

Although such behaviors are more likely to be seen in overweight individuals, it may not be limited to them. People with a lower BMI may also exhibit these behaviors but may compensate for this with other behaviors such as overexercising.

Can this be classified as a mental disorder?

Obese individuals continue to eat large amounts of unhealthy foods despite severe negative social and health consequences- a pattern seen in drug addicts and alcoholics. Many people undergo a “healing crisis” when removing certain foods from their diet, which is similar to the withdrawal symptoms addicts experience when avoiding say, cigarettes, alcohol, and coffee. There may be repeated unsuccessful attempts to quit, much like those attempting to give up smoking.

Despite striking similarities between the drive for overconsumption of food and substance abuse, the evidence is insufficient to support that food addiction exists and is indeed a true mental disorder. In order to call it a mental disorder formally, it needs to present as a clinical syndrome ie., a pattern of set behaviour. It does not yet hold a place in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Many people undergo a “healing crisis” when removing certain foods from their diet, which is similar to the withdrawal symptoms

Also, there is no solid evidence that any food, ingredient, combination of ingredients, or additive (with the exception of caffeine) causes us to become addicted to it. The idea that certain foods eg. junk (high fat/sugar/salt) might be able to trigger an addictive like process in vulnerable individuals is a high possibility.

Should we blame the modern environment where food is plentiful and advertisements of junk food galore?
These may cause stronger motivations in susceptible individuals to seek out food or may also increase their cravings.

What are the other factors?

Researchers have found that sleep-deprived individuals have a greater activation in brain reward and food-sensitivity centers when viewing images of chocolate bars and doughnuts than when looking at healthy foods like carrots and yogurt. Not getting enough sleep may boost your appetite for junk food. When fatigued, the body feels a need to energize. Eating provides a quick burst of energy which may help fight sleep and remain alert.

Another finding is that consumption of a meal that has a high glycemic index (refined carbs) appears to stimulate key brain regions related to cravings and reward. Refined carbohydrates irrespective of calories can provoke symptoms related to addiction in susceptible people. Therefore, avoiding highly processed carbohydrates could help overweight people avoid overeating.

It has also been found that when the human brain is exposed to large amounts of fructose (found in fruits and sweetened processed foods such as high fructose corn syrup), the pathways involved in appetite regulation are modulated, thereby promoting increased food intake/food seeking behaviour. This does not imply that 1-2 servings of fruit a day may be harmful if you are otherwise healthy, it’s the overconsumption of industrially sweetened foods that might be the culprit.

Chocolate may evoke similar behavioral reactions in susceptible persons. Chocolate contains several biologically active constituents (methylxanthines, biogenic amines, and cannabinoid-like fatty acids), all of which can potentially cause abnormal behaviors and psychological sensations that parallel those of other addictive substances.
Some research states that it is not only the taste but the way a food is presented, that may cause such a response to food.

Stay away from highly processed foods: they may be high in sugar/fat/salt and possible food additives

Take home lesson?

Whether you are a susceptible individual or not, the anti-obesity mantra seems to work here as well:

Stay away from highly processed foods: they may be high in sugar/fat/salt and possible food additives which make them more palatable and can trigger an addiction like state in vulnerable individuals.

  • Get enough sleep.
  • Hydrate well throughout the day.
  • Eat every 3-4 hours: Pre-planning is important as a full stomach is the key to a rational mind.
    Your diet should consist of nutrients as per your requirement. These include low fibrous carbohydrates, protein, essential fat, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and water. This will prevent any imbalance in the brain’s neurotransmitters which are crucial in decision making; especially where food is concerned.
  • Exercise regularly as it improves fitness levels and body image; it will have an overall impact on the way we look at food.
  • Seek counselling: Don’t be ashamed to seek help when needed. It may help to identify behaviour patterns and find timely interventions. A physician, psychotherapist and nutritionist may be able to help.

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