Food Addiction: A Prelude

Food addiction is a hot topic right now. I’m currently working on a blog post on food addiction for The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and look forward to sharing it with you after its release. But in the interim I thought I’d give you a taste by sharing with you some intriguing research. The proponents of the food addiction theory like to compare the neurological responses to food with the neurological responses to other addictive substances. The only trouble is that there are a lot of holes in the research that need to get filled before we buy that theory outright. (More detail to come in my forthcoming post.)

So being the neuroscience geek that I am, I started digging into the literature and discovered something important. There is a MAJOR component missing in the food addiction research (including the Yale Food Addiction Scale, a tool used for research as well as in clinical settings). It doesn’t account for caloric restriction and restrained eating.

What does this mean you might ask?! It means that we see a hyper-response in the reward region of the brain when we haven’t been eating enough (i.e. dieting or starving ourselves). This happens in response to seeing pictures of food, thinking about eating, as well as actually consuming food. Turns out that most people who feel that they are food addicts have an incredibly complicated history of dieting and disordered eating. It only makes sense that their brain response is extra active when they “give in” and eat a forbidden food…and then feel out of control while eating.

Perhaps what we are seeing in the neuroimaging is a HEALTHY response to food in a starved state and not an indicator of addiction at all. Needless to say, the food addiction research is in its infancy and there are a lot of unanswered questions. But the current research does seem to point to another solution that could prevent unnecessary weight gain, decrease food obsession and diminish compulsive overeating- END dieting.

Perhaps you’re a skeptic? Take some time to browse the research below; and this is only a sampling! 

Research Studies to Consider

Ciampolini M et al. Sustained self-regulation of energy intake. Loss of weight in overweight subjects. Maintenance of weight in normal-weight subjects, Nutrition and Metabolism, vol. 7, article 4, 2010. [ Free full text.]

Heileson J.L., & R. Cole (2011). Assessing Motivation for Eating and Intuitive Eating in Military Service Members. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111 (9 Supplement), Page A26.

Intuitive Eating was associated with lower body mass index levels in 100 active military troops.

K H Pietiläinen, S E Saarni, J Kaprio and A Rissanen (2011). Does dieting make you fat? A twin study. International Journal of Obesity.

Madden C.E., Leong, S.L., Gray A., and Horwath C.C. ( 2012). Eating in response to hunger and satiety signals is related to BMI in a nationwide sample of 1601 mid-age New Zealand women. Public Health Nutrition. Mar 23:1-8. [Epub ahead of print].

Stice E, et al. Caloric deprivation increases responsivity of attention and reward brain regions to intake, anticipated intake, and images of palatable foods. NeuroImage 67 (2013): 322-330.

Women with high Intuitive Eating Scale (IES) scores had significantly lower body mass index, which suggests that people who eat in response to hunger and satiety cues, have unconditional permission to eat, and cope with feelings without food, are less likely to engage in eating behaviors that lead to weight gain.

 Ziauddeen H and Fletcher PC. Pro v Con Reviews: Is Food Addictive? Is food addiction a valid and useful concept? Obesity Reviews (2013): 14 (19-28).


  1. Thank you. From the first time I heard the term “food addiction” I’ve been a skeptic. However, it would be nice and easy to blame my excess weight on a food addiction, but I know I just eat more than the calories I burn. The solution is to eat less and/or burn more calories. It is just a matter of doing it, and when I care ENOUGH, I will.

  2. YES! Thank you. My understanding of addiction and habits (and it is not nearly as extensive as yours or that of researchers) informs me that anything we PERCEIVE as rewarding will result in the brain responding similarly. So simply putting any ‘bad’ food on a pedestal or believing that brownies are both AMAZING and IRRESISTIBLE will only reinforce a response that mimics addiction. This is different than a cocaine addiction and the response to drugs like cocaine because cocaine affects dopamine directly, unlike other things we might find rewarding.

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