Is Food Addiction a Real Eating Disorder?

By | December 2, 2018

Is Food Addiction a Real Eating Disorder?

You may have heard in advertising slogans that food is addictive — once you pop, you just can’t stop — or, more seriously, in discussions of compulsive behavior like binge eating.

But is food truly addictive?

This week, Biological Psychiatry published a special issue exploring the question of whether or not food can be considered an addiction.

It used to be that the term “addiction” applied only to addictive substances, like drugs and alcohol. More recently, the term was broadened beyond addictive substances to include addictive behaviors like gambling, internet use, and sex.

But food is a special case. For one, food is a biological necessity. This fact alone distinguishes it from substances like alcohol and behaviors like gambling. Second, there is no food withdrawal. Also, by eating more, people do not gain any sort of food tolerance, as they do with alcohol and drugs. All these factors distinguish compulsive eating from other types of addiction.

On the other hand, overeating disorders like compulsive eating and bulimia are very real. The compulsive aspect of binge-eating is similar to the compulsion addicts feel impelling them to drink, or engage in other addictive behaviors.

It might appear that the question of food addiction is mostly semantics. Clearly, compulsive eating shares some aspects with addiction as traditionally understood, and in other ways is distinct.

But classifying compulsive eating as an addiction has important ramifications for how the disorder can be studied and treated.

Biological Psychiatry reviews a number of studies that use the heuristic framework of addiction to examine compulsive, and others that do not. Paper topics include brain reward circuitry, obesity, addiction, impulsivity, and self-control, as well as the relationship between food and dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in pleasure and reward.

The special issue also investigates binge eating, the newest type of eating disorder diagnosis. From the papers discussed, a strong consensus emerges that binge eating is a sub-category of obesity most closely related to drug addiction.

The special issue calls for further research into the question, with the goal of exploring its ramifications in light of the national discussion of diet, nutrition, and obesity prevention.

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