Food Addiction: Science and Storytelling at OW2018

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Mark Twain understood this bit of wisdom. Thus we felt his influence at a session yesterday on food addiction at ObesityWeek 2018 in Nashville. Sandwiched between three scientists, we enjoyed an engaging presentation by a journalist with a good story to tell.

It’s the story of how the food industry doesn’t just want to sell you tasty food. Big food wants you hooked on salt, sugar, and fat. Michael Moss made quite a splash in 2013 with his book on the misdeeds of the industry. But he got mixed reviews yesterday.

Plenty of Tantalizing Neuroscience

Lorenzo Leggio presented research looking at common pathways for craving alcohol and potentially addictive foods. His observations suggest that ghrelin may play a role in both. In fact, he has preliminary data to suggest that blocking the pathway might reduce both alcohol and foods cravings.

Then, Paul Kenny presented research on eating behaviors in animals that look like addiction. Again, he had some fascinating insights, but they lead to more research. No definitive proof for food addiction.

Believing Is Seeing

True believers have no time – or need – for more research. Faced with clients who insist that they’re “addicted” to junk food, dietitians tell us they roll with it. Rather than putting energy into arguing with someone’s convictions, they wisely move on to behavioral strategies for helping with healthier eating behaviors.

And so it was for Michael Moss’s presentation. He told an engaging story that delighted the fans of his book. He didn’t weigh them down with a bunch of boring evidence. Just a story that hangs together pretty well. Big Food designs its product to be addictive. It’s all about using salt, sugar, and fat to find the “bliss point.”

And aside from grumbling that he wasn’t very forthcoming about his financial interest in selling his book, the skeptics mostly held their tongues. Some expressed private concerns about a presentation light on objective facts. But they didn’t challenge him with any hard questions.

Not Quite There Yet

In the end, moderator Michael Lowe tied things together pretty well. He presented data from his own research on the Power of Food Scale. It’s a useful measure for studying hedonic eating behaviors – eating driven by cravings that look like addiction. But as Professor Brenda Davy told us afterward, the evidence is just not enough to support a diagnosis of food addiction.

Click here for a review of the concept of hedonic hunger and the Power of Food Scale. Also worth a look is this pair of pro and con views from 2012 on food addiction.

Reading, photograph © Tore Bustad / flickr

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November 13, 2018

2 Responses to “Food Addiction: Science and Storytelling at OW2018”

  1. November 13, 2018 at 7:44 am, Kate said:

    Agree with the overall summary but no need to throw dietitians under the bus, there were practitioners from several different fields making similar comments.

    • November 13, 2018 at 8:26 am, Ted said:

      Thanks Kate. I happen to think that professionals who don’t get mired in a debate with clients about food addiction are making the right choice. I didn’t see that bus coming. So, if dietitians are under the bus, I’m under there, too.