According to a new study, food addictions result in similar activity in the brain as drug addictions.
“This past year we got interested in the idea of food addiction and the neural process,” lead researcher Ashley Gearhardt, a clinical psychology doctoral student at Yale University, told the Los Angeles Times. “We just wanted to get down and deep into whether people really experience food addiction.”
The study from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity included 48 women with an average age of 21 who ranged from lean to obese.
The researchers measured food addiction based on an established test for measuring drug addiction. The test includes statements such as, “I find that when I start eating certain foods, I end up eating much more than I had planned,” and respondents rate how closely the statements match their own experiences.
The researchers examined brain activity using a functional magnetic resonant imaging (fMRI) while the subjects were drinking a chocolate milkshake. The results were compared with the subjects’ brain’s response to the anticipation and consumption of a less tasty substitution.
The team found that the brains of subjects who scored higher on the food addiction scale displayed activity similar to that seen in drug addicts.
The researchers also found that the brain activity indicative of addiction was found in both lean and obese subjects who scored high in the test for food addiction.
Gearhardt said the study’s results suggest that certain triggers do not just have a psychological effect on people, but a physiological.
“We found that the high food addiction group showed low inhibition: They have less control in their consumption, and that’s something we’ve seen also in addicts,” she said in a statement.
Gearhardt said it is still unknown whether people are born with a predilection for food addiction or develop it through their behavior.
Gene-Jack Wang, a senior scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory who studies the brain’s role in obesity and eating disorders, told CNN that junk foods may be part of the problem.
He said that many foods have become less natural and more heavily refined over the past decade, as sugars and fats have been added to make them tastier and more satisfying.
“Natural foods take a long time for the body to absorb,” says Wang, who was not involved in the study. “But the added sugars hit the brain right away.”
He told CNN that some people might be more vulnerable because “They may be genetically hardwired to like certain foods and to absorb them faster.”
The research is published in the August issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.