Food Addiction: Helpful, Hurtful, or Just Off the Mark?
The popular interest in food addiction is impossible to miss. A search for scholarly articles on the subject yields thousands of references in 2016 alone. A check for news items produces hundreds of thousands. Amazon will serve you more than seven thousand books on the subject.
So Nicole Avena and Nina Crowley met with an eager audience at YWM2016 yesterday when they debated the merits of food addiction as a cause for obesity.
Avena presented the argument for food addiction as a helpful explanation for one pathway to obesity. At the top of her list for the most addictive foods was pizza, chocolate, chips, cookies, and ice cream. Cucumbers, carrots, beans, apples, and brown rice were at the bottom.
To her credit, Avena conceded the limitations of this idea. Supporting data is mostly from animals. It adds stigma, perhaps as much or more than it adds understanding. And food and drugs play very different roles in the human experience. But she concluded with an emphasis on the addictive properties of sugar and highly processed foods.
The countering argument from Crowley was that addiction could not fully explain the complexity of obesity and the many factors that contribute. People without obesity may have symptoms of food addiction. And many people with obesity have no symptoms of food addiction.
However helpful models of food addiction might be, they also bring further stigma to a diagnosis that is already stigmatized. But perhaps the most serious limitation is that food addiction is a misleading model for the complex, chronic disease of obesity.
At best, it’s a just a small part of a much bigger picture.
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August 27, 2016