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Food addiction is real, affecting middle-aged women most

Teresa Tanoos's picture
New study suggests food addiction is real

Although there continues to be a debate surrounding the existence of so-called “food addiction”, new research from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that some women may indeed be addicted to certain foods, as opposed to just eating them because they like the taste.

Earlier this week, the researchers released the results of their large-scale study, which involved 134,000 middle-aged and older women who were participants in the Nurses’ Health Study.

The researchers found that nearly 6 percent of the female participants actually fit the profile of a “food addict”, according to the criteria for food addiction, which was established by the Yale Food Addiction Scale in 2009 and has since been validated in multiple other trials.

The Food Addiction Scale asked the participants to verify the truthfulness as it applied to them in statements like the following:

1. "I find that when I start eating certain foods, I end up eating much more than planned"; and:
2. "I find myself continuing to consume certain foods even though I am no longer hungry".

Among the women in the study, the worst of the food addicts were middle-aged, with a little over 8 percent of the women between the ages of 45 and 64 years meeting the criteria for food addiction, whereas only 3 percent of the older women did.

Addiction specialist Ashley Gearhardt, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who worked on the study with researchers from Harvard, said that they’re just beginning to see certain patterns in food addictions that are similar to other addictions and “one of them is that younger people have more addiction problems.”

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In addition, the participants in the study who were considered food addicts also tended to be single women who did not currently smoke, which confirms what researchers believe may be a case of “addiction transference”, a process through which an addict substitutes one addiction for another – in this case, researchers suspect that the participants who were former smokers simply switched from their addiction to nicotine to an addiction to food.

While addiction to food was linked strongly to women with a higher body mass index (BMI), the results also revealed that food addiction occurs in normal-weight and even under-weight women.

Another factor contributing to food addiction, but for reasons unknown, is geography, with the female participants from the eastern United States having lower rates of food addiction, compared with those from the South and Midwest.

So what did these food-addicted women eat?

According to the study, they preferred foods considered highly palatable, such as processed foods high in fat, sugar, salt and other additives, which are foods that appear to stimulate the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter also known as the “feel good” chemical. In other words, such foods apparently set off the pleasure and reward centers of the brain.

Gearhardt also mentioned that lack of willpower has less to do with food addiction than the kind of foods addicts eat, so researchers are trying to learn if certain foods are able to “hijack the system, given the right vulnerabilities in a person, and this study helps us identify those individuals.”

Given the large-scale of the study, it could have important clinical implications in that it focused on a subset of women who seem to be truly addicted to food in a manner very similar to any other substance that people abuse. In this regard, it may be that these women truly can’t help themselves because it’s not a matter of simply eating healthier foods; rather, it appears that the food they’re addicted to has certain properties that make them “hooked”.

SOURCE: 1. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Food addiction scale measurement in 2 cohorts of middle-aged and older women, First published online January 22, 2014, doi: 10.3945/​ajcn.113.068965. 2. Yale Food Addiction Scale, Gearhardt, Corbin, Brownell, 2009.