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.