Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Food addiction

Many years ago I wrote a book called Diet Addiction on the premise that the western world seemed to need a diet book best seller every 6-12 months. We were addicted to diets. Relatives never bought my book. They would ring or email asking my opinion on Scarsdale, Blood Group, Cabbage Soup, or Atkins. I would tell them they didn’t work, but the Tuscany All Natural Easy Body Fat Stripping Chocolate and Beaujolais Diet Revolution was quite sensational. Each day you got a square of chocolate, half a glass of Beaujolais, a head of lettuce, as much tap water as you could drink, plus two hours of walking.

I was trying to make the point that when they bought a best seller they were buying a title, not sense; hope, not reality. Nobody cared.

Food addiction

If diets are not addictive, just temporarily persuasive, can foods be addictive? Although, there is evidence that the foods you really enjoy do trigger the release of endorphins in the brain to heighten the enjoyment or that the sudden removal of certain foods can cause withdrawal-like symptoms, you won’t find an academic saying food is addictive.

And there I’m wrong. Canadian academics have come out and said that some foods have similarities to drugs in that we actively seek tasty and kilojoule-dense foods, needing increasing amounts for satiety, and suffering withdrawal when on a diet that precludes these foods. Like drug withdrawal, there is a high incidence for relapse from dieting.

Food and drugs spark the brain

Brain imaging studies show that similar parts of the mesolimbic system are activated by food and drugs, both causing the release of dopamine and endorphins. The authors told me more I didn’t know. When some people have gastric surgery to combat obesity, they may transfer their food addictive behaviour to another addictive behaviour, such as gambling or compulsive spending.

Gee, no matter what happens, it is costing the addicted consumer a lot of money. Why won’t the body crave a really cheap addiction, like watching the sunrise each morning, or volunteering at a charity, or train-spotting?

Fat sensitivity

In this month’s British Journal of Nutrition, researchers from Deakin University in Australia found that some people are very sensitive to the taste of fat and this sensitivity makes them eat less fatty foods. In fact, the fat sensitive people ate fewer kilojoules and had a lower Body Mass Index. In other words, they were leaner. The evolutionary theory of food choice states that humans sort out high fat (eg seeds, nuts) and high sugar (eg figs, plums) foods because they provided more kilojoules per weight than leafy vegetables. This finding shows that not everyone prefers a high fat diet.

What does it all mean?

There are some people who will seek high fat foods and some who are satisfied with less fat in food. It could be that some brains are hard-wired to seek kilojoule-rich foods, possibly in those that also have a personality that thrives on food rewards or need to self-medicate through food when the going gets tough.

Democracy and freedom brings abundance and excess. Some bodies cope better than others. That might be why it is so difficult to work out who or what to blame for the podge – ourselves, food companies, the current government, or the “system”.


Canadian medical Association Journal 2010; 182 (4): 327-328

British Journal of Nutrition 2010; March 3: 1-8

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