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Food Addiction: More Than a Craving

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NEW HAVEN, Conn.Individuals who are addicted to food appear to have similar brain activity as individuals with substance abuse, according to a new study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. The findings link symptoms of addictive eating behavior with specific patterns of brain activity in both obese and lean individuals.

Researchers at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale studied 48 healthy adolescent women ranging from lean to obese who completed the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS), which applies the diagnostic criteria for substance dependence to eating behavior. Using brain-imaging procedures such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the study examined the relation of food addiction symptoms, as assessed by the YFAS, with the womens brain activity in response to food-related tasks. The first task looked at how the brain responded to cues signaling the impending delivery of a highly palatable food (chocolate milkshake) versus cues signaling the impending delivery of a tasteless control solution. The second test looked at brain activity during the actual intake of the chocolate milkshake versus the tasteless solution.

Both lean and obese participants with higher food addiction scores showed different brain activity patterns than those with lower food addiction scores. In response to the anticipated receipt of food, participants with higher food addiction scores showed greater activity in parts of the brain responsible for cravings and the motivation to eat, but less activity in the regions responsible for inhibiting urges such as the desire to drink a milkshake. Similar to drug addicts, individuals exhibiting signs of food addiction may struggle with increased cravings and stronger motivations to eat in response to food cues and may feel more out-of-control when eating highly palatable foods.

''People who report symptoms of addictive-like eating behavior also appear to show the same pattern of brain activity as we would see in other addictions," said lead researcher Ashley N. Gearhardt. The findings of this study support the theory that compulsive eating may be driven in part by an enhanced anticipation of food rewards and that addicted individuals are more likely to be physiologically, psychologically, and behaviorally reactive to triggers such as advertising. The possibility that food-related cues may trigger pathological properties is of special concern in the current food environment where highly palatable foods are constantly available and heavily marketed."

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