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Junk Foods Trigger Food Addiction in Obesity?

Readers of these pages will be quite familiar with my previous posts on food addiction.

A new paper by Paul Johnson and Paul Kenny from the Scripps Research Institute, Jupiter, FL, just released online in Nature Neuroscience, demonstrates that in rats development of obesity is coupled with a progressively worsening deficit in neural reward responses (as seen in cocaine or heroin abuse).

In drug users, this decreased neural reward response is considered crucial in triggering the transition from casual to compulsive drug-taking.

In their experiments, the researchers found compulsive-like feeding behavior in obese but not lean rats, and showed that this compulsive overeating was even resistant to disruption by an aversive conditioned stimulus.

The researchers also found down regulation of dopamine D2 receptors in the striatum (an area of the brain involved in reward behaviours) in a manner similar to what has been reported in humans addicted to drugs.

Genetic knockdown of striatal D2 receptors also rapidly accelerated the development of addiction-like reward deficits and the onset of compulsive-like food seeking in rats with access to palatable high-fat food.

Together these data clearly demonstrate that overconsumption of highly palatable foods can trigger addiction-like neuroadaptive responses in brain reward circuits that can drive the development of compulsive overeating.

As I noted in several media interviews on this article yesterday,

while not all forms of obesity can be reduced to food addiction, anyone dealing with obesity needs to be aware of the possibility that they may be addicted to certain foods and must therefore approach their obesity in the same manner as they would approach any other addiction. Unfortunately, in contrast to substance abuse, food abstinence is not an option“.

I can certainly now see why diet plans for treating food addiction are about as successful as drinking plans are for managing alcoholism.

Edmonton, Alberta


  1. Dr. Sharma, I caution you to be aware of the potential of increasing stigma around obesity when talking about “food addiction.” While you might be thinking of it from a clinical perspective, it reinforces stereotypes of fat people as out of control in general, not only with food. Addiction conjurs up images of people who are unable to control their behaviors, and while this might be strictly true, it isn’t global.

    While ideally, this would increase compassion for people with all manners of addictive behaviors that are beyond what we usually think of as “control” — as you said, abstinence from food is not possible. There are modalities that attempt to decrease exposure to certain foods as they can be triggers for addictive pathways (such as OA-HOW), the condition that is being addressed isn’t obesity, per se, but a pattern of eating that may be more accurately described as disordered eating. Not everyone who eats in a disordered pattern is obese (such as in the case of bulimia).

    I think it’s probably useful to separate some of these issues out. Obesity is sometimes the result of the triggering of certain addictive pathways, but treating the addiction does not mean that someone would automatically become “non-Obese” as they could eat in an entirely “abstinent” manner and not lose weight, and attempting to restrict food could in fact trigger the addictive behavior itself. Complex.

    I think it’s important to note the role that the food industry plays in this. Like Tobacco, they are aware of the addictive nature of certain ingredients and manipulate them to “hook” and “retain” people. I am probably someone who could be led into a trap with a trail mini snickers :-). I can avoid the snickers most days, though — but that doesn’t mean I have to be completely abstinent from sugar in order to avoid an endless weight gain loop. I try make my own baked goods, that way, I’m in control of the ingredients and don’t subject myself to the manipulation of the food industry, and I can make sure that what I’m eating and feeding my daughter includes whole grains, more healthful fats and “real food.”

    My humble request is that you come up with sound bites that don’t increase stigma. What you were quoted as saying is certainly in that direction, but anything that can help increase compassion and understanding would be most helpful.

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  2. one more comment — “overconsumption of highly palatable foods” is really subjective. For some, any consumption of “highly palatable foods” could be a trigger — while for others, they may be able to eat these foods periodically without triggering dependency.

    I think this data is most applicable not on the individual level but on the legislative and policy level.

    I think most people, not only obese people, would notice that having an occassional cookie doesn’t mean someone has an addiction to cookies. But again, in people all across the weight range, eating a bunch of cookies every day might lead to a need for more and more cookies to satisfy the same need. This is applicable for people who are trying to avoid cavities, dips in energy, knocking other nutritious food out of their daily diets — it doesn’t all have to come down to obesity.

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  3. I definitely agree with the article and the idea that food addiction is related to brain activity. A further thought is that some drugs will affect and help with the addiction. A year ago, I gradually stopped taking Prozac as it was not helping with my depression and anxiety. As I decreased the Prozac dosage, my interest in food increased, until I was thinking about eating constantly. (In trying to deal with it but keep my calorie intake down, I ate so many carrots I think I might have been starting to turn orange!). A few months later, I started taking Wellbutrin, and within days found myself able to concentrate on other things for more than a few minutes without thinking about eating. As an obese person, I still think about food and eating more often than most people I talk to, but the compulsion is no longer constant, for which I am immensely grateful.

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  4. Food abstinence is not possible, however abstinence from those certain “highly palatable” foods is certainly possible.

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  5. I finally found a way that worked. I abstained from all foods except for meat. It felt like I was divorcing my culture as I slowly began to see the levels of meaning favorite foods held for me. I wasn’t EVER physically hungry, but I still craved certain foods from time to time.

    After 2 years, these feelings diminished and when I decided to try certain of my favorite foods again they simply didn’t taste very good to me anymore. I’m happy when this happens as then I don’t dream of them any more.

    I keep my eating very simple-meats mainly with small amounts fruits and vegetables. Most restaurants use industrial oils that I can taste so I cook the food myself.
    After 4 yrs. I’ve lost almost 100 lbs. and kept it off.

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