Full text of Andrew Becker’s talk: Food Addiction: Craving the Truth About Food at TEDxUWGreenBay conference.
I imagine everybody here works hard! You know we all have these exhausting days, where we get home just feeling very worn out.
But on these tiring days, how many of you have taken an edge off with a comfort food? You know the foods that just make you feel better! Maybe it’s cookies, chips, chocolate, soda, fast food… You can all picture your favourite.
But why do these foods make us feel better? Isn’t the point of eating to meet your caloric need to have enough energy for the day?
But how many of you have been able to eat your favourite treat on a full stomach? It’s pretty easy!
Even if you feel regret during every single bite, you were very compelled to do it and you know you’re probably going to do it again, the next time that it’s served; at least I will.
But have you ever tried doing this with a food you find really bland? You can’t… I mean, at least you don’t want to. Why is this?
We’ve all heard of the phrase, “This tastes so good! It’s like crack!”
What if I told you that idea may not be so far off, at least for some people? I mean, we all know we can become addicted to things. Things like cigarettes, alcohol and painkillers.
What if I told you that ‘Food could be addictive’, at least for some people? And it could significantly be contributing to the obesity epidemic in our modern society.
So currently in 2015, the CDC reported that, in the United States, 40% of adults are obese and 71% are overweight. 630,000 Americans died of heart disease and one in three individuals are either pre-diabetic or already have diabetes. This has an incredible economic impact in our society.
In 2008, it was estimated that obesity-related costs totalled $147 billion. So this affects every single one of us.
I believe one of the central problems that drives obesity in our society is the current food climate that we’ve created – the foods that cause us to ignore our full stomachs and eat until we incur health complications. These foods are very powerful and they give us a lot of motivation to consume.
So much so that in many people, that can actually cause addictive-like behavior.
So currently it’s estimated that 25% of obese individuals show significant signs of food addiction. This is measured by the Yale Food Addiction Scale, which is a tool that was developed to detect signs of substance abuse from consuming highly palatable food.
Now I use this term a lot! Highly palatable food is food that is really high in salt, sugar and fat. And importantly these foods typically aren’t really found in nature. And so this Yale Food Addiction Scale has been used in many studies to show that many aspects of food addiction mirrored drug addiction.
So for example, Pertori and colleagues found that when they imaged the brains of individuals that showed 3 or more symptoms of food addiction, according to the Yale Food Addiction Scale, they had changes in specific brain regions that were similar to other participants with other addictive disorders.
A different study by Gerhart and colleagues found that when participants consumed a milkshake; those with a higher score on the Yale Food Addiction Scale showed greater activation in areas of the brain related to reward which is also seen with addictive drugs.
So these are just two examples demonstrating that research has been able to show that there’s a lot of overlap between specific areas of the brain between addictive drugs and the consumption of highly palatable food — which again are these foods that are really high in salt, sugar and fat.
So we can even look and find more examples of how food addiction mirrors drug addiction. We know that when someone addicted to drugs stops taking it, they go through withdrawal. Too many common symptoms of withdrawal include increased anxiety and loss of appetite.
Researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden showed that when they gave obesity-prone rats, a diet really high in salt and fat and sugar, and then they withdrew this diet, the rats showed increased anxiety and loss of appetite for the standard normal food.
We know that addictive drugs can cause people to develop a tolerance to them. This tolerance often leads to increased drug use and overdosing.
Researchers from The Scripps Research Institute in Florida showed evidence that the consumption of highly palatable foods can cause tolerance when they allowed rats to eat as much high fat and high sugary food as they wanted. They found that as the rats consumed these foods, the reward that they got from these foods decreased over time, driving the rats to overconsume these foods and gain weight. They developed a tolerance.
And so I know many of you are probably very sceptical to compare the power of certain drugs to food.
But did you know that when Lenoir associates gave rats a choice between cocaine or sweetener called saccharin? They actually prefered to consume the sweetener over the cocaine, which I think starts to really show the potential power that these substances can have.
And so these are just a couple of examples of a much larger growing body of evidence that is showing that people, Negus rodents show clear signs of addiction to highly palatable food as others show to addictive drugs.
So I want to explain to you how food which I know is required for life has the potential to be addictive.
An important point, I want to make is food that has more salt, sugar and fat that is typically found in nature is what seems to have the potential to be addictive. These are the highly palatable processed foods that I mentioned earlier like cookies, chips, chocolate, soda, fast food.
And so importantly when humans were evolving, over millions of years, they never experienced highly palatable food. They ate meat, nuts, fruits, vegetables that were found in nature. They also lived in a very food-scarce environment and had to constantly be seeking out the next meal.
And so this means that their reward pathways, which is the circuitry in the brain that drives us to do many of the necessary things for survival, never experienced highly palatable foods.
And research is starting to show that these foods can have negative consequences on our reward circuitry. For those that may be unfamiliar, the reward pathway zone makes us feel good when you do things that are good for your well-being. Examples include drinking water when you`re thirst, sex, being social with others and eating food when you’re hungry.
Evolutionarily, the reward pathway drove people to consume foods that would be more advantageous for survival. This means that they were driven to consume foods that gave them high amounts of reward, and foods that give you high amounts of reward, are typically that are really high in salt, sugar and fat.
And so for comparison, food like cake is most likely going to give you a higher feeling of award than something like celery, because the cake has more sugar and fat. The higher sugar and fat causes you to get a better feeling of reward, when you consume it. The evolutionary advantage of this is it gave humans an innate way to prioritize foods that would be more advantageous for them.
When we consume these highly palatable foods, and think of your favourite, mine is sweets, your brain releases a lot of this neurotransmitter called ‘Dopamine’.
And so dopamine is really well known for giving us motivation and drives and importantly when consuming many of the highly palatable foods of today, dopamine-signalling can actually be so strong it can motivate us to consume these foods even when we feel full.
And so this is one everybody who’s going to joke about using their second stomachs to keep eating dessert even though they accidentally over ate on dinner.