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Food For Thought: how convincing is the addiction model?

Obesity is at pandemic levels in the western world. You won’t be surprised to hear that central to this is our increasing appetite for food, and lots of it.

As clinicians attempt to think outside the box in tackling the burden of obesity, food is increasingly being considered as a substance of addiction, in the same way as drugs and alcohol. Food, like recreational drugs, stimulates brain pathways of reward and pleasure. In a recent opinion article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Prof Paul Fletcher and Dr Hisham Ziauddeen from the Department of Psychiatry review the evidence for food addiction.

Eating and body weight involves a complex interplay of internal hormone signals from the brain and stomach as well as a host of social factors, referred to as the ‘obesogenic environment’.  Re-framing food as a substance of abuse may provide insight into biological mechanisms, and suggests that eating might be targeted with the same strategies applied to drug addicts. However, food addiction recently failed to make it into the upcoming revised version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the standard guide used to classify psychological disorders, underlying the controversy surrounding the theory. Nevertheless, the food addiction model has gained momentum and has increasing influence on policy making.

In this paper, Prof Fletcher and Dr Ziauddeen together with Professor Sadaf Farooqi of the Institute of Metabolic Science, question the scientific grounds that model. The authors critically assess the neurobiological evidence and conclude that although the food addiction model may have a place in the understanding of overeating and obesity, it is premature to accept it as fact, suggesting that current evidence is not strong enough to support its influence in policy making.

The authors’ also comment on their paper here.

Adapted from article written by Kate McAllister for the Department of Psychiatry News.

Posted on 06/07/2012

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