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Food addiction: a neurobiological approach

In this video from the Università di Torino, we examine the idea of food addiction and its neurobiological correlates.
In recent years scientists have begun to investigate the concept of food addiction. While at first glance this might look strange the hypothesis could have some merit to it as the reward circuit is responsible for the reward value of both primary rewards such as food and of drugs.
The defining elements of addiction moreover are not specific to drugs: some of them as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders include items such as spending a great deal of time obtaining and or using the substance, repeated attempts to quit and continued use despite adverse consequences. Most of these items can be adapted to include unhealthy eating behaviors and to chronic overeating.
The hypothesis that food can cause addiction is validated by a number of studies conducted on animals and humans. Some studies for instance show elevated dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens, one of the pleasure centers of the brain, When the animals were exposed to food, to sweets or to sex alike. Another study even showed that extreme sweetness either caused by sugar or by an artificial sweetener can be more rewarding than the use of cocaine. This might look surprising, but there is an evolutionary justification for the stronger reward value of highly caloric foods.
A neuroimaging study found that a sample of women that gained weight during the last six months showed a decreased response to palatable food in an area associated with reward. Furthermore, it was found that the Brain response to rewarding food might be caused by previous overeating and weight gain creating a vicious cycle the result is similar to what happens with tolerance in drug users. The continued abuse of a substance results in a decreased response by the brain the for prompting an increase in the dosage and yet more tolerance. Even if there is some evidence in support of the idea of sugar addiction or food addiction in general the scientific community is still
uncertain: some studies especially studies done on rats or animal models support this idea, while others do not This has not stopped lifestyle bloggers and self-help book writers who are now attacking sugar accusing it of everything from slowing down the brain to causing widespread inflammation and, as we said, addiction. Many if not all of these claims are false and we should all be careful in distinguishing scientific research from fad diets especially when a consensus between researchers has not emerged.
Both healthy and unhealthy eating behaviors are the results of genetic, ambiental Endocrine Cognitive and neurobiological Factors and trying to simplify them by focusing on one aspect cannot bring us closer to understanding them. To make an example, drug cravings are usually indicative of a substance addiction while food craving are relatedly common not equally well understood and are often culturally considered legitimate. Psychological and cognitive factors are especially important. In the next lecture a psychotherapist will discuss the utility of the idea of food addiction from a clinical point of view.

What is food addiction?

Food addiction might seem a new topic – it has only caught steam in the scientific literature over the last 10 years. However, the idea was already proposed decades ago, to the point that Overeaters Anonymous was founded in the 1960.

The evidence supporting the idea of food addiction comes from both neurobiological and psychological approaches, but it is not unanimous. In this video and in the next steps we will describe it and we will approach from multiple points of view, and we hope that by the end of this week you will have formed your our opinion, and that you will share it with us and with your fellow students.

What we would like you to do

Please share your thoughts on the following question:

  • Do you believe it is possible to be addicted to certain food?
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Food for Thought: The Relationship Between Food, Gut and Brain

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