Researchers sink teeth into food addiction question

Oct 15 2013

An HMRI research team from the University of Newcastle is hoping to determine whether ‘addiction’ to pleasurable foods high in salt, fat and sugar could be contributing to the obesity epidemic.

Previous international studies have shown consumption of foods high in sugar and fat can produce reactions in the brain similar to those that occur in drug addiction.

During National Nutrition Week (13-19 October), University of Newcastle researchers are highlighting the preliminary results of their cross sectional survey, which show most people exhibited at least one of the behaviours of addicts around food.

Doctorate student Kirrilly Pursey said food could trigger feel-good chemicals in the brain such as dopamine, a chemical that is also stimulated by highly addictive drugs including cocaine and methamphetamines.

“When people eat foods they enjoy and the levels of dopamine increase in the brain, those with a possible food addiction may experience an altered sense of pleasure or reward following the consumption of a specific food. The response to these foods may override signs of fullness and as a result people with food addiction keep eating. With obesity rates skyrocketing at international levels there is some urgency behind this research to determine whether food addiction plays a significant role,” Ms Pursey said.

Ms Pursey has studied more than 650 people nationwide who were asked to fill in an online survey about their behaviours around food including questions about tolerance, withdrawal, desire and cravings for food.

“A cross section of participants predominatly aged between 18 and 35 years participated in the survey with more than 95 per cent of respondents displaying at least one characteristic associated with food addiction and nearly 20 per cent displaying all seven characteristics.

During the next phase of the study participants will undergo functional medical resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the brain, which show areas of the brain ‘lighting’ up in response to cognitive tasks such as responses to specific foods.

“Our research will help to determine whether an addiction to food could be an additional contributing factor to obesity and could help to explain why some people find it more difficult to lose and maintain weight using traditional weight loss therapies focusing on diet and exercise.”

The third phase will involve researchers developing an eating, exercise and psychological plan to try and overcome the food addiction.

* Doctorate student Kirrilly Pursey researches with Dr Tracy Burrows – School of Health Sciences (Dietitian), Professor Clare Collins – School of Health Sciences (Dietitian) PRC for Physical Activity and Nutrition and Associate Professor Peter Stanwell – School of Health Sciences (Medical Radiation Science). HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.