Can you be addicted to food?

May 31 2021

Professor Tracy Burrows has always wanted to help people. After a brief fling with the idea of becoming an engineer, Tracy completed her undergraduate degree in nutrition and dietetics before spending several years in private practice.

Tracy returned to university and gained her PhD researching childhood obesity before moving into dietary assessment. Tracy says that dietary assessment may sound a bit boring; however, it is vital to dietitians.
“As a dietitian, you have to ask people what they eat,” Tracy said. “It sounds pretty simple, but in practice, it is really hard. Sometimes people might not want to tell you what they are really eating and if you miss things, then the recommendations you make won’t work.”

To overcome this problem, Tracy and her team utilised what they call a ‘nutrition lie detector’, which looks for biological markers of what you have been eating.
“We can look for a range of markers, for example, carotenoids in the blood or skin which represent fruit and vegetable intake. We can also look at red blood cells to see the types of fats people are eating. Putting these together allows us to validate the self-assessments and know whether they are accurate or not,” Tracy said.

More recently, Tracy’s research has focused on nutrition and mental health and has taken her down a controversial path – to discover why people develop or may have unhealthy relationships with food. “The area of food addiction is pretty controversial because it is not a recognised addiction, but patients and individuals use these words in clinical practice,” Tracy said.
“There are lots of self-help groups talking about food addiction, but when we look at it from a research evidence perspective, they are not based on evidence and rarely are health professionals involved.”

Tracy and her team saw this as a key opportunity to build that evidence. If food can be an addiction, traditional approaches like encouraging diet changes are unlikely to work.

The team uses advanced imaging techniques like MRIs to see if people’s brains respond to food in a similar way to people who have addictive tendencies to other things. The other new aspect of Tracy’s work is that the team have looked at which treatments are effective in other forms of addiction and are piloting them to see whether they work in people who overeat.

“We are giving them personality-based coping strategies, identifying triggers and effective distractions, which are all approaches you would find in other forms of addiction treatment,” Tracy said. Tracy’s work is garnering attention, having secured over $1.5 million from the National Health and Medical Research Council to investigate the neurobiological mechanisms of overeating and whether these behaviour change interventions are effective.


Tracy’s Tips: Your food and your mood

• Recognise how food affects your mood and how mood affects your food. Think about what you are eating and how it can affect how you feel. If you feel down, you might find you eat in certain ways, but likewise, it may affect how you feel mentally if you eat certain ways.

• Be honest with yourself about your food.

• Be a good food role model for others, your family, your children, peers. Kids are always watching, so be aware of not only what your kids are eating but what they see you eating and drinking.

• Seek help if you need it. There are many ways you can improve your relationship with food, whether it is the professional help of an accredited practising dietitian or even just talking to family members or friends.