This is Your Brain on Food: The Science of Food Addiction

For years we’ve heard about drug and alcohol addictions, but what about food addictions? Is it possible to be addicted to food?

Doctors and scientists have debated whether food addiction is real and remains a controversial topic. Until now research on food addiction has been lacking, but new studies have suggested food addiction may truly exist.

A recent study has found evidence suggesting that food cravings may be “hard-wired” in the brains of obese people. Dr. Oren Contreras-Rodrigues, at the University of Granada in Spain showed that “food addictions are similar to drug addictions in that they can cause similar behaviors such as inability to cut down, continued use despite negative consequences, and a sense of a loss of control.”

Dr. Contreras-Rodrigues took brain images of healthy weight vs. obese individuals and saw that their brains look different in terms of food cravings. Obese people had increased connectivity between the part of the brain that processes reward-motivated behaviors (dorsal caudate) and the part of the brain that assesses food’s energetic value (somatosensory cortex).

The findings showed that obese individuals are more likely to associate high calorie foods (high sugar and fat content) with the promise of reward; therefore making it more difficult for obese people to turn down unhealthy foods. On the other hand, individuals of a healthy weight considered hunger level and nutrition value in addition to the taste of food. These findings suggest that food cravings can be predictive of weight gain.

Another study by Dr. Gearhardt showed that foods such as chocolate and pizza have addictive properties that make it hard to eat just one. Since obese people tend to view foods with high sugar and fat with promise of reward, it is more difficult to turn these foods down. So maybe there is something to this whole food addiction theory.

However, food addiction does sound quite similar to overeating (binge eating disorder), so what’s the difference?

According to the 2009 Yale Food Addiction Scale, “food addiction” patients have higher levels of depression, negative emotions, emotion dysregulation, eating disorder psychopathology, and lower self-esteem than people who overeat. These findings may help scientists better understand what triggers obesity, by doing this obesity can be better diagnosed and treated in the future.

The more we learn about food addictions and cravings the more we understand how cognitive pathways are involved. Due to this, you would think there would be a way to interfere with this pathway and distract the brain from these food cravings, right? Well, that’s being studied too!

Psychologists from Plymouth University and Queensland University of Technology in Australia found that playing Tetris decreased cravings for food, drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, and coffee from 70% to 56%. This is the first study demonstrating that cognitive interference can be used to reduce cravings for substances and activities besides eating! When people crave food they imagine consuming it; Tetris occupies the mental process that supports imagery; therefore, it is hard for the brain to focus on wanting food and playing Tetris at the same time.

So when you’re craving high calorie foods, play some Tetris to distract your mind!

About the Author

Amanda Shaver is a Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia. She enjoys dancing, crafting, and playing with her dog Mr. Peabody. High on her list of accomplishments is eating a whole block of cheddar cheese in one sitting without negative consequences. You can email her at Amanda.shaver@uga.edu or follow her on Twitter @AOShaver.