The American Medical Association has officially classified food addiction as a disease.
This summer’s designation was championed in certain clinical quarters but derided in just as many. One thing is clear on both sides of the debate: in this era of fat taxes, soda bans, and school lunch reform, obesity is high in the consciousness of both the public and the medical community.
Most researchers rely on the Yale Food Addiction Scale to separate the addicts from run-of-the-mill foodies.
One particularly revealing study from Yale University measured the brain activity of subjects- both addicts and standard eaters- as they were tempted, and then rewarded, with a chocolate milkshake. PET scans and brain MRIs showed that for all the participants, sipping a milk shake caused a surge of neural activity in the brain’s regions that govern cravings. The response was virtually indistinguishable from the neural response of alcoholics and drug addicts when they’re given their drug of choice. But in the truly food addicted, there was a drop of brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s center for self control. It points to real, physiological reasons why some people are unable to muster the willpower to make good decisions about food and eating. The findings suggest that setting a chocolate milkshake down in front of the food addicted is just like dangling a dime bag of heroin in front of a junkie.
Nearly 1 in 20 people meet the Yale criteria for food addiction.
According to David Kessler, a biostatistician and a former commissioner of the U.S Food and Drug Administration, there are more than 70 million food-addicted adults in the U.S, and they’re sick of being a pop culture punchline. To them, willpower is not enough to just say ‘no’ to french fries; they hope the biological basis of the Yale findings will bring understanding and compassion to their plight.
Food addicts are forced to confront their demons three times a day. Every meal challenges them to resist the pathology of the brain’s reward center. They reel from the constant temptations on the calendar—Halloween candy gives way to Thanksgiving dinner followed by Christmas and New Years feasts. Just when they’ve made it through the back-to-back candy holidays of Valentines Day and Easter, the doorbell rings and it’s the Girl Scouts hawking those damn Thin Mints cookies. How long do you think sobriety would last if a glass of whiskey was placed in front of an alcoholic as often?
Then there’s the pervasiveness of foodie culture, which runs amok on dedicated cable channels, in the food porn everyone is snapping, and in countless tweets and food blogs. For too many, food appreciation has become an obsession. While some of us feel food fatigue, for the food addict it’s a constant, punishing minefield of temptation.
Foodies have created an environment in which celebrations of narcissism and gluttony are socially acceptable, blurring the line between preoccupation and pathology. Disordered, compulsive eating can be hard to spot. It rarely has the rock-bottom, aha moment of other addictions, but instead tends to be a slow, chronic creep of abuse of a substance we’ve indulged in our entire lives.
Are we all food addicts waiting to happen?
Check your own propensity with this online test of addictive behavior based on the Yale Food Addiction Scale.