Food Addiction: Pop Hype & Emerging Science

Food addiction is a concept firmly entrenched in pop vernacular, but still emerging as a concept of medical science. In the realm of tobacco policy, scientific soundbites comparing nicotine to cocaine provided a tipping point that opened the way for more aggressive and effective public policy measures. So food policy activists are trying to borrow from that success, fueling headlines like “Saccharin And Sugar Found More Addictive Than Cocaine.”

Scientific consensus is not quite there yet.

A new study published in Appetite by a team of researchers from Temple University found that 15% of adults seeking treatment for obesity meet clinical criteria for food addiction. They also found significantly more depression in patients who meet the criteria for food addiction. But they concluded that considerably more research is needed to understand the clinical significance and diagnosis of food addiction.

Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Addiction, recommended food addiction for inclusion in the new DSM-5, which is the American Psychiatric Association’s authoritative reference for diagnosing mental disorders. Despite the evidence of similarities between addiction to drugs and obesity that results from compulsive overeating of appealing foods, the final decision was to exclude this diagnosis.

So while it’s becoming increasingly clear that mechanisms similar to addiction are at work in some cases of obesity, headlines comparing sugar to cocaine are more hype than science.

Click here to read an interview with Volkow on the relationship between addiction and obesity, click here to read the study from Temple, and click here to read a review of the science of food addiction.

Nutellina, photograph © entonceeees / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.