Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk: New Study Explores Link Between Food and Drug Cravings

Addictive eating behavior has been linked for the first time to specific patterns of brain activity in both lean and obese individuals

A new study published by Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity shows that people who struggle with severe food cravings exhibit similar brain activity as those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol.

"This past year, we got interested in the idea of food addiction and the neural process," said lead author Ashley Gearhardt, a clinical psychology doctoral student at Yale University. "We just wanted to get down and deep into whether people really experience food addiction."

Using brain imaging technology, the researchers tested the responses of 48 women to the temptation, and later reward, of a chocolate milkshake. The women, with an average age of 21 and ranging from lean to obese, took a survey on food addiction based off of a similar test on drug addiction. The women who showed stronger signs of food addiction as determined by the survey had a brain response to the milkshake similar to the neural responses of drug addicts. In drug addicts and pathological eaters, the area of the brain associated with cravings showed more activity, while the region that controls urges experienced less activity, compared to individuals who reported no problem with addiction.

The study has several important implications.

First, just the image of the milkshake inspired the same brain response in food addicts as the image of a margarita might create in the brains of alcoholics. A tempting image of a hamburger may not only create psychological, but also physiological desire to seek out some beef. Food advertisements are frequently for the least healthy, hardly sustainable food products-- fast food and processed foods. This neural response encourages people struggling with food addiction issues to eat food that is both unhealthy and bad for the environment.

Second, high-fat, high-sugar foods trigger particularly strong reward responses in our brains. Sugar, salt, and fat were very important flavor triggers for human evolution over the past several million years, but processed foods have nutritionally jumped the shark. Gearhardt explains that ", foods are so much more rewarding than anything our brains have evolved to handle... These are foods that really can sort of hijack our brains." Food addicts are not bingeing on arugula.

The timely study was released while the psychiatric community is struggling with whether to consider food addiction as akin to alcoholism. The American Society of Addiction Medicine will be voting this month to determine whether pathological eating will be considered a genuine addiction, for policy purposes.

Photo Credit: Arnold Inuyaki