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Food Addiction: Myth or fact?

"I can't stop eating X food!" and "I'm addicted to X!" are phrases I hear all too often.

But is food addiction real??

Well, to be perfectly honest we do not have ANY decent evidence that supports the notion of food addiction in humans.

There have been many sensationalised stories on food and sugar addiction, but the research they are based on is heavily flawed.

Firstly, the research has been mostly carried out in rats. Therefore, does not accurately represent human physiology or response to substances.

Secondly, in most studies rats are starved before being given an option of substances. One headline I read claimed that sugar is more addictive than cocaine. But after a look into the scientific article I discovered that rats had been starved and then offered a solution with water or with cocaine. Of course the rats chose sugar over cocaine- if your body thinks there is a famine (period of starvation), it prioritises the need for energy and therefore takes the food while it has the chance. Humans do the exact same- we are hardwired to keep our species alive and food is at the core of that, not cocaine!

Based on these issues alone, you can see why sugar addiction research is not widely accepted among the scientific community.

I have also heard arguments such as "sugar lights up your dopamine response the same way heroin does".

As I mentioned above, we are hardwired to survive. The drive to keep the species moving means that the reward pathway in our brain that releases dopamine (the happy hormone) is lit up when we do things that promote our survival. When dopamine is released we have that euphoric feeling, and remembering that feeling is what is thought to keep us doing these activities.

I had a lecturer who referred to the 3 F's that light up the reward pathway- food, friendship and ....

Why those things? Food we need for energy, friendship because we are pack animals and thrive with social support, and the third is obvious, reproduction is necessary to continue as a species.

Given that sugar is food, it is not surprising that it lights up the reward pathway!

Why then do drugs light up the reward pathway, you might think? Well, that's because some drugs have a similar structure to neurotransmitters in the brain, while others cause larger amounts of neurotransmitters to be released, resulting in a greater dopamine response than usual.

It is worth remembering that food, sugar included, is necessary for life, whereas other addictive substances are not. Therefore, considering food or sugar as a potentially addictive substance is not helpful.

Some researchers have posited the use of the term "eating addiction" rather than food addiction. Researchers claim that although food is not be an addictive substance, patterns of eating and eating as a behaviour, can become addictive in predisposed individuals (not based on weight).

Take home message: Food addiction does not appear to exist- but eating addiction may affect humans. We are still in early days of the research, so there should be lots more to come!

If you are having trouble with an aspect of your eating or feel out of control around food, you are addicted to food, but it may be something underlying. Get in touch with me and find out how I can help

Lots of love,

Little O x

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