According to three new studies overeaters may have much in common with drug abusers.
The studies, published in the Journal of Addictive Diseases, examined the biological relationships between overeating, obesity and addiction.
Drugs engage same brain pathways as appetite
Past studies have shown that illicit drugs create addiction because the drugs engage brain pathways associated with appetite and the enjoyment of food—substituting cravings for sustenance with those for the drug. The new studies suggest that because of these pathways, food itself can become addictive. This "food-as-drug" model, considered radical by many in the medical community 10 years ago, is now given serious consideration.
The new studies propose that overeating is in part due to food becoming more palatable, hedonistic and refined. Researchers suggest that what we see today as obesity may eventually be reclassified as a substance abuse disorder, with food as the abused substance.
Obesity hidden hazard for recovering addicts
Researchers also suggest that obesity might be a hidden hazard for those starting on the road to sobriety, as stopping any drug dependence—whether alcohol, marijuana or cocaine—causes rebound increases in appetite and the drive for food.
The studies propose that drug or alcohol addiction treatment should include a plan for a healthy diet and regular exercise. In one of the studies, scientists found that 75 teenagers in a long-term residential treatment program gained an average of 11 pounds during the first 60 days off drugs.
Another study correlated obesity and self-reported alcohol use in 300 women, aged 16 to 79, undergoing weight loss treatment. The researchers found the more obese the women were, the less likely they were to drink alcohol. The theory is that eating and drinking alcohol are competing in the brain for ‘reward pathways’.
More research is required
The similarities between overeaters and drug abusers present new potential treatment approaches. More research is required.
About 24% of US adults aged 20 and older are now obese, according to estimates from a 2003 survey by the National Center for Health Statistics.
1. M. S. Gold; James, G.A., Liu, Y., “Interaction of Satiety and Reward Response to Food Stimulation,” Journal of Addictive Diseases, 23: 3: 2004: 23 – 37, DOI: 10.1300/J069v23n03_03.
2. M. S. Gold; Cahill, K.S., Frost-Pineda, K., Hodgkins, C.C., Seraphine, A.E., “Adolescent Drug Addiction Treatment and Weight Gain,” Journal of Addictive Diseases, 23: 3: 2004: 55 – 65 DOI: 10.1300/J069v23n03_05.
3. M. S. Gold; Frost-Pineda, K., Jacobs, W.S., Kleiner, K.D., Lenz-Brunsman, B., Perri, M.G., “Body Mass Index and Alcohol Use,” Journal of Addictive Diseases, 23: 3: 2004: 105 – 118 DOI: 10.1300/J069v23n03_08.