Are You Addicted to Food?

By Rachael Moeller Gorman, "Addicted to Food?," March/April 2011

Food can enslave the brain just like drugs can. Dr. Nora Volkow’s research may help you take back control.

Breaking the Cycle

But even though we are inundated with hyper-palatable food, not everyone becomes an addict. “At least 50 percent of that vulnerability is related to genetics,” Volkow says. And your ability to put on the brakes is a crucial factor. “Some people are [naturally] much better at controlling their desires than others.” After genetics, Volkow says the rest is environment—if you only have access to high-calorie, cheap junk foods, that’s all you can eat.

Not everyone in the field agrees that people can be addicted to food and they object to the excuse it provides. “Interest in obesity as a brain disease should not detract from a public health focus on the ‘toxic food environment’ that is arguably responsible for the obesity epidemic,” writes psychologist Terry Wilson, Ph.D., of Rutgers University in a 2010 paper. But those who study food addiction say it does bear striking similarity to drug and alcohol addition: Ashley Gearhardt, Kelly Brownell and William Corbin at Yale have created the Yale Food Addiction Scale to determine whether a person is truly addicted to food. They adapted it from the scale for substance dependence in the DSM-IV (the “Bible” of psychiatry), and it includes criteria like whether the subject has been unsuccessful in trying to quit, whether he or she spends a lot of time trying to obtain the food, whether he or she has given up other recreational activities for the food, whether there are adverse consequences of eating the food, whether the subject becomes tolerant to the food and whether they have withdrawal symptoms. When they surveyed 233 people, these three leading researchers found that 11.6 percent of them could be diagnosed with food dependence (consuming large amounts of food despite significant issues—obesity, health problems—associated with it and the desire to stop, as well as withdrawal or tolerance). The scale could be useful in determining treatment for addicts versus those who simply experience the occasional craving.

Back in her office, surrounded by sculptures and paintings, some from her own hand (yes, she’s an artist too!), Volkow talks about how addiction steals our free will and makes us a slave to the salient substance. So is Nora Volkow a chocolate addict? “No, I’m not. We use the word way too much.” The distinction, she says, is when eating the food impairs your life, when you lose control, like when a person consistently eats so much they only eat in private out of embarrassment and spend much of their time thinking about food. “Most people [who] take drugs are not addicted to drugs, like most people who eat chocolate, even if they eat more than they should, are not addicted to chocolate.

“I may have that vulnerability, perhaps, for compulsiveness, but I am lucky enough to also have the control that leads me to plan ahead and say, I’m not going to do these things.” In other words, you can extend a hand from a present moment of strength to a future instance of weakness and wrestle your free will back from the dopamine master within.

Rachael Moeller Gorman, an award-winning science writer, is a contributing editor for EatingWell.

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