Is there addiction to food? | Science

Is there addiction to food? | Science

What food is addictive for you? The chocolate, the chips, the crackers?

You've already thought of one, right? Well, the question is cheating.

Because science is not clear (or by far) that there may be addictive foods, and that there is no "addiction to food."

It is true that in our colloquial language we use terms such as "addiction", which in the scientific field have a more complex meaning. It helps us to describe a situation that nobody interprets literally. There is no greater problem.

In known addictions, the substance or the addictive behavior are dispensable and can be avoided, but food is essential to survive

The conflict appears when the opposite direction is followed, and the science takes the slang to determine that a new pathology exists: the addiction to the food.

Let's be clear: if the addiction to food exists, it is a mental disorder that will affect the quality of life of the sick. That will cause them suffering and that will interfere with their daily tasks. Reasons more than enough not to speak lightly.

Does food addiction exist?

We start from a basic idea: nobody wants to suffer a pathology.

But something curious happens: when we talk about certain patterns of behavior that we consider negative, we define them almost instinctively as addiction.

Addiction to sex, social networks, internet … or food.

Even some people not only identify themselves, but define themselves as addicted to mobile, sugar or chocolate. But it is usually done from a trivial perspective, as a way of expressing how much you like something, without pretending to communicate a real problem.

Because when the addiction is real, it is usually accompanied by social stigma and feelings of shame (as it happens with all mental illnesses, unfortunately).

If there is no pathology, it is exhibited. If there is disease, it is hidden.

It is not a coincidence that there are associations such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous or Anonymous Compulsive Eaters: he does not usually show off having alcoholism or gambling problems or having a real problem with food.

But, while the addiction to substances such as alcohol, nicotine and other drugs that is perfectly characterized and can be diagnosed, about the existence of food addiction, the scientific community has not reached a consensus.

Instinctively, almost without question, we would say that some foods trigger compulsive eating behaviors, and that these are very similar to addictive behaviors.

If the addiction to food exists, it is a mental disorder that will affect the quality of life of the sick and that will cause suffering

Something that, far from hiding, has even been used as an advertising claim. "Try to eat only one" or "Why can not you eat just one?" These are the phrases that have accompanied some snacks for more than 30 years, and that clearly allude to the loss of control.

Why not talk openly about food addiction? Why is it controversial and there are disagreements?

A part of the scientific community considers that there is sufficient evidence to affirm that food addiction exists, and they have even developed tools to evaluate this dependence [FoodCravingQuestionnaireDutchEatingBehaviorQuestionnaireThreeFactorEatingQuestionnairePowerofFoodScaleandmorespecificallythe[FoodCravingQuestionnaireDutchEatingBehaviorQuestionnaireThreeFactorEatingQuestionnairePowerofFoodScaleylamásespecíficalaYale Food Addiction Scale (and his upgrade)].

Several reasons suggest that, indeed, food addiction can be a new pathology, since it has similarities with other addictions:

However, it is not so clear that it is a new disease, because several of these characteristics occur in some eating disorders less known than anorexia and bulimia, but perfectly characterized and included in the most used diagnostic manuals: WHO ICD-11 and the DSM-5 of the American Psychiatric Association.

This is the case of binge eating disorder, nocturnal food intake syndrome or hyperphagia in psychological disorders, in which anomalous patterns of intake could be recognized that would fulfill some of the criteria of addictions: recurrent binge eating episodes in high amounts , loss of control, subsequent discomfort, excessive intake in response to stress …

It is premature to consider it a new pathology, although the evidence suggests that some foods, especially the ultraprocessed, have greater addictive potential

Science must decide, based on the strongest evidence available, if the addiction to food is really a new disease that can not fit into any of those already described.

What science tells us

The term "food addiction" appeared for the first time in the scientific literature in 1956, but since 2009 publications on the subject have grown exponentially.

The most recent systematic reviews agree that there is no agreement: the concept of "food addiction" is not established still and it is premature consider it a new pathology, although the evidence suggests that some foodespecially the ultraprocessed, have more addictive potential.

Why do we get sensational news about food addiction?

What in science needs solid argumentation and is expressed with caution, the public comes to become categorical certainty in the form of gimmicky reports, which mention as endorsement scientific studies and are illustrated with the following "shocking" findings:

Does this allow us to conclude that food triggers an addiction like drugs do? Absolutely.

First because, as it indicates this systematic review, studies with animals are only the starting point of scientific research, and the results that relate certain foods to the development of addictive behaviors have not been replicated in humans.

And on the images that show the activity of the cerebral areas before different stimuli (drugs or foods), this meta-analysis It indicates that the drugs act on the receptors of the reward circuit, the same receptors that produce pleasurable sensations related to food or sex. But just because drugs and food activate the same brain areas does not mean that food produces dependence; it is a natural response to perpetuate a behavior necessary for survival. To talk about addiction, an abnormal reaction must occur, which does not appear.

To conclude, one can not ignore an important differential fact regarding food and its intake: in known addictions, the substance or addictive behavior are dispensable and can be avoided, but this is not possible with food. Food is essential to survive.

Part of the treatment of the person who suffers alcoholism, gambling or dependence on a drug is to avoid the substance and control the environment. This can not be done with food: the person "addicted" (if you can apply the term) will have to continue to relate to food all his life.

Beatriz Robles (@beatrizquality) is a food technologist and dietitian-nutritionist, master in food safety audit and an enthusiast of scientific dissemination (

NUTRIATE WITH SCIENCE It is a section on food based on scientific evidence and knowledge contrasted by specialists. Eating is much more than a pleasure and a necessity: diet and eating habits are now the public health factor that can most help us prevent many diseases, from many types of cancer to diabetes. A team of dieticians-nutritionists will help us to better understand the importance of food and to tear down, thanks to science, the myths that lead us to eat badly.


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