One in 20 Canadians meets the criteria of a "food addict," a new study from Newfoundland's Memorial University suggests.

In a study of 652 Newfoundlanders, researchers from the St. John’s university found that 5.4 per cent of the participants met the criteria for a "food addict," as determined by the Yale Food Addiction Scale.

The Yale Food Addiction Scale consists of 27 statements describing eating habits such as: "I eat to the point where I feel physically ill," and "I find that when certain foods are not available, I will go out of my way to obtain them. For example, I will drive to the store to purchase certain foods even though I have other options available to me at home."

Participants are considered "food addicts" if they showed three or more symptoms within the past year, coupled with "clinical significant impairment or distress."

The study recruited 415 women and 237 men from the province and assessed their eating habits using the scale. Participants' body mass index and body fat percentage was also assessed, as well as their macronutrient intake.

The study found the following:

  • Women were twice as likely to be diagnosed with food addiction than men (6.7 per cent versus 3 per cent)
  • The prevalence of food addiction significantly increased with obesity status, regardless of how body fat was measured
  • Food-addicted participants weighed 11.7 kilograms more than non-food addicted participants, had 8.2 per cent greater body fat and carried 4.6 higher BMI

Dr. Guang Sun told CTV's Canada AM that the study – believed to be the first scientific study of food addiction at the population level – will add to current obesity research.

"The significant contribution of this study is we are able to separate food addiction (as) actually one of the major causes (of obesity)," he said Wednesday.

He said that food addiction doesn't just affect those who qualify as addicts, but also appears to have an effect on the general population.

“This means that although individuals may not be clinically diagnosed with food addiction, food addiction symptoms are potentially part of the cause of increased fat mass in the general population," he said in a statement.

Sun added that obesity is a "complicated" disease with many factors, but this new research may help doctors find different ways to treat it, such as psychology.

"It's very similar to drug addiction," he said.

He added that past studies have looked at the brain images and brain responses to food, and found that the images from obese people with food addiction closely resembled the brain images of drug users.