Is food addiction responsible for obesity?

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Obesity

A commentary published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal has renewed the controversial concept of food addiction, claiming that it could be at least partly responsible for the obesity epidemic.

The idea that it is possible for some individuals to become addicted to food has been the subject of extensive research. Although evidence has emerged suggesting that tasty foods trigger areas of the brain associated with reward, and that dieting can produce withdrawal symptoms, there is still no medical consensus on whether it is possible to develop a food addiction.

Valerie Taylor and her co-authors acknowledge this, but put forward the argument that food – or at least some components of food, such as fat – can cause the same brain responses as drug addiction. They wrote that food differs in that it is legal and relatively cheap.

The authors point out that some people are more susceptible to compulsive behaviors than others – and although they say that the issue of personal choice is important, they argue: “The current “blame” mentality that is often applied to individuals with obesity needs to be re-examined.”

High-calorie foods

The authors also argue that the incidence of obesity has been exacerbated by the creation of a plethora of high-calorie foods, for which it is thought that people have a natural inclination due to evolutionary factors.

They claim that as companies compete with each other to make ever tastier food, the prevalence of obesity increases.

“Recent developments in food technologies have allowed the creation and modification of certain foods to artificially enhance their rewarding properties (i.e., their palatability) in an attempt to increase sales in a highly competitive market,”​ they wrote.

This is not the first time that the food industry’s manufacture of high-calorie foods has been highlighted as a possible cause of obesity. An article published in The Milbank Quarterly ​in March accused industry of employing similar tactics to those of the tobacco industry in the 1950s, specifically charging it with ‘framing’ obesity as an issue of personal responsibility, and suggesting that industry should reformulate foods to contain fewer calories and higher nutrition.

A spokesperson for the Grocery Manufacturers Association pointed out at the time that the food industry has been busy doing precisely that.

He said: “Over the last several years, our industry has voluntarily changed its advertising and marketing practices, introduced or reformulated well over 10,000 healthier products and invested in physical activity promotion. Our efforts are having an impact and we will continue to do our part.”

The full Canadian Medical Association Journal ​commentary can be accessed online here​.

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