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Food Addicts: New Study Measures Out-Of-Control Eating

While “food addiction” is somewhat controversial, a new study is shedding some light on women who may actually fit the profile of an addict, rather than simply liking chips and dip.

Research released this week online in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at food addiction among 134,000 middle-aged and older women, all of whom participated in the large-scale Nurses’ Health Study. Nearly six percent met the criteria for food addiction as established by the Yale Food Addiction Scale, which was developed in 2009 and validated in numerous trials.

Middle-aged women fared the worst. Slightly more than 8 percent of women ages 45 to 64 could be considered food addicts, while 3 percent of older women met the criteria.

The Food Addiction Scale asks questions such as: "I find that when I start eating certain foods, I end up eating much more than planned" and "I find myself continuing to consume certain foods even though I am no longer hungry".

“We’re starting to see the patterns with food addictions that we see in other addictions, and one of them is that younger people have more addiction problems,” says addiction specialist Ashley Gearhardt, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who worked on the study along with researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health.

The women who met criteria for food addiction were also more likely to be not married and not currently smoking. Researchers suspect that former smokers have simply traded the nicotine addiction for a food addiction, a process called addiction transference.

Although addiction was strongly associated with a higher body mass index (BMI), the data also show that you can be an average-weight woman or even underweight and have a negative relationship with food. Geography seems to matter, too. Women from the eastern United States seem to have fewer problems with food addiction than those from the South or Midwest, although researchers don’t know why.

The foods of choice for these women were so-called “hyper-palatable” treats that are high in fat, sugar, salt and processing. These foods seem to trigger the brain’s pleasure and reward centers through increases in the transmission of the “feel good” chemical, dopamine.

“The major narrative with every addiction is that people have no willpower,” says Gearhardt, who was one of the developers of the Yale Food Addiction Scale. “We know that’s not true, so we are trying to better understand if there are some foods that can hijack the system, given the right vulnerabilities in a person, and this study helps us identify those individuals.”

Because the researchers looked at a large population, the data may have important clinical implications. “We are finally getting at a distinct subset of individuals who are struggling in a way that looks like substance abuse more than anything else,” says Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, who was not involved in the study. “Saying eat more vegetables and exercise more won’t work with people who are struggling like this.”


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