Research that Changed Research: Is Food is the New Drug?

Since Halloween just past, I’m sure many of us are now struggling with an over-active (or re-instated) sweet tooth. But why is it that even not close to Halloween, when we have cravings, we usually prefer foods that are sugary, high in fat, and salty?

Davis and colleagues were wondering the same thing! But, they were more interested in why eating behaviors, namely overeating, produces addictive-like qualities in obese individuals. Coincidentally, sugary foods with high levels of fructose enhance physiological properties that are similar to those of addictive drugs. When large amounts of fructose are consumed, possible biological changes may actually promote overconsumption of food and cause problematic health issues.

In their study, Davis and colleagues recruited seventy-two obese participants between the ages of twenty-five and forty-six years old. Participants were measured in three areas: (1) clinical, (2) personality, and (3) eating behavior. Clinical measures include assessments on food addiction, binge eating disorder, depression severity, and ADHD symptoms. Personality measures include assessments on impulsivity, and addictive personality traits. Eating behavior measures include assessments on binge eating, hedonic eating, emotional eating and externally driven eating, food cravings, and snacking on sweets.  Participants were allowed to take the questionnaires home and return the package when completed.

The original passage below shows the results of the study:

“The powerful urges and cravings that compel drug seeking behaviours – often against the individual’s better judgement – are cardinal features of all addiction disorders (Garavan, 2010). As expected, the food addicts reported stronger food cravings than the non-FA group…we also expected, and found, that food addicts were more sensitive and responsive to the pleasurable properties of palatable foods as indicated by higher scores on a measure of the hedonic impact of food, and by more frequent snacking on sweets. Similar to the preliminary validation research by Gearhardt et al. (2009), we found that food addicts reported more overeating in response to emotional triggers like depression and anxiety, and were more likely to self-soothe with food compared to control participants…”

The results demonstrated a strong association between food and substance abuse within the group of participants involved in the study. This is strong evidence that maybe food addiction and drug addiction are two sides of these same coin. The study also suggests that there are different subtypes of obesity and that each may be vulnerable to distinctive threat factors in the environment, and a more personalized treatment approach might have better outcome for those who are struggling with obesity. The DiSH Lab couldn’t agree more with this last point! As our research has shown that diets fail more than they work, we are in full support of an approach to obesity that doesn’t blame a failed diet on the individual.