The war on food

The war on food

New book by UF expert highlights food addiction and ‘globesity’ epidemic

By Marilee Griffin

Photo by Maria Belen Farias.

A decade ago, the medical community viewed food addiction much the same way a gourmet chef might view string cheese. Interesting, but not worth taking seriously. Today, backed by brain-imaging studies and multidisciplinary research, food addiction is finally a concept that many medical specialists want to sink their teeth into. Now, most of this research has been compiled into a new book by Mark S. Gold, M.D., chair of the UF College of Medicine department of psychiatry, and Kelly D. Brownell, Ph.D., a professor in the department of psychology at Yale University. Their Oxford University Press book, Food and Addiction: A Comprehensive Handbook, is the first to collect academic essays written by experts from multiple disciplines to examine the scientific evidence for food addiction. Recently, Gold gave The POST the scoop.

How does food addiction relate to drug addiction?

Food and drugs compete in the brain for the same reinforcement sites. Drug-addicted people, once they stop using drugs, always overeat. People who work in psychiatry know that depressed people overeat. People who are stressed or in pain overeat. And they don’t just eat anything — they eat desserts, pizza or other reinforcing foods that have drug-like effects. The world’s basic scientists have confirmed the fact that certain foods target the brain and can and do have drug-like qualities.

 What types of foods have drug-like qualities?

We’ve shown that animals will self-administer glucose and fructose corn syrup, and they will become dependent on those as if they were drugs. If your company made a pastry, you’d construct it in a way that’s compelling, where the ingredients are a combination of fat, sweets, salt or fructose corn syrup and chemicals rather than a strawberry, so there’s more of a likelihood that customers would eat it again and again. So it’s perfectly understandable that food has evolved to be reinforcing and have drug-like qualities. It’s also incumbent on policy people as well as researchers to develop ways of damping that down so that we make Pop-Tarts as reinforcing as broccoli.

Why should society be concerned about food addiction?

We’re in a globesity epidemic — a global obesity epidemic — and I think public health approaches and preventions are relevant. Food’s changed. Access to food’s changed. Portion size has changed, as well as our expectations. We have very little understanding of manufactured food: what’s in it, and what might cause liking, wanting, craving and loss of control. That famous Lay’s potato chip ad could describe food in general; food has been so reinforcing that you can’t eat just one. If food is very much like tobacco and the health impact and cost are very much the same, what’s the public policy?

Are there obstacles in treating food addiction?

When I first started, we were not allowed to admit alcoholics to the hospital because they were not considered appropriate admissions. We blamed the patient. Now we understand that yes, the first cigarette may be the person’s fault. But after that, the cigarette is constructed to incite its own taking. Once the person is addicted — once a cucumber becomes a pickle — they can’t make it back without intervention and organized treatment. So it’s mostly educating our colleagues that addictions are diseases and that blaming the patient is not an effective strategy for helping them.

What is the next step in your research?

I’m hopeful that our team can manage to understand food addiction well enough to develop multidisciplinary treatment approaches for food addicts that will change the course of their disease, so that it doesn’t end up in diabetes or cancer or other horrific health and social consequences.