Obesity Action Coalition: Understanding Food Addiction

Nicole Avena of Columbia University opened the second day of OAC’s YWM2013 Convention yesterday with a compelling, clear presentation on the science of food addiction. Systematically, Avena walked a group of nearly 400 activists, patients, and professionals through an explanation of what we know and don’t know about addictive behaviors related to food, as well as what we might do next.

Normal Eating and Drug Addiction

She drew a distinction between eating to satisfy immediate hunger and eating for comfort or pleasure. She pointed out that both consumers and food marketers seem to accept the language of addiction to describe foods that give comfort or pleasure.

Yet the science of food addiction is incomplete. She outlined some key differences between drugs of addiction and food. These differences add complexity to the work of sorting out the science of food addiction.

Evidence for Food Addiction

Nonetheless, she summed up the evidence for food addiction with a chart showing that we have data from both animals and people for virtually all of the criteria used to diagnose an addiction. Only three of these seven criteria are needed for a clinical diagnosis.

The problem comes in discerning what to do in the face of accumulating evidence that some foods may be addictive for some people and contribute to the burden of obesity.

Avena suggested three concepts for consideration. One is altering social norms, such as rewarding children with food, putting food at the center of social events, and pairing unhealthy foods with toys for children. In essence, she suggested a reconsideration of norms that make us “food pushers.”

Another concept is to become more savvy food consumers through better understanding of the foods that present unhealthy risks.

And finally, research into the biology of food addiction may yield treatments that will help people at greatest risk overcome food addictions and the obesity that results.

The presentation brought unusual clarity to a complex scientific work in progress.

Click here to view Avena’s presentation, and click here for more information about the OAC YWM2013 convention.

Food Addiction, photograph © Rennett Stowe / flickr

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