Can you be addicted to food? Theory on what's fuelling North America's obesity problem gains ground
SOUTHAMPTON, ONT. -- Matthew Mahon is 46 years old and fears he won’t see 50.
“The last time I was in the hospital, all my organs were shutting down. My lungs, my heart, my kidneys, my liver. Everything was saying ‘sayonara Slim’, we’re out of here,” he told W5.
When Matthew was last weighed, the scale tipped 760 pounds. It’s a weight he blames not on lack of willpower, but on addiction.
“It’s the same with an alcoholic. They say ‘quit drinking’. Not so easy. Same with a drug addict..’just put down the drugs.’ It’s easier said than done.”
Matthew knows a thing or two about addiction. For 14 years he was a heroin addict. He believes his drug abuse masked a food addiction that he’s had since childhood. It’s an addiction he says came back with a vengeance when he kicked heroin.
His mother, Debi Underwood, says she worries more about Matthew now than when he was addicted to drugs; “I have him text me everyday and say ‘morning mom’ so I know that he’s there. It’s the same as a mother worries about a [drug addicted child]. They are going to get that dose and that’ll be the last one.”
The concept of food addiction is not widely accepted in mainstream medical circles. It isn’t listed as an addiction in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). And yet there is a growing debate about whether people like Matthew have a physical addiction to food.
Dr. Ashley Gearhardt is a world leader in the study of food addiction. An Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, she has created a first of its kind diagnostic tool called the Yale Food Addiction Scale. The scale mimics questionnaires used to diagnose other addictions like alcohol, tobacco and drugs.
“We looked at the literature on how we diagnose any other addiction. And so we wanted to apply those behavioral markers of addiction to the consumption of ... highly rewarding, processed foods,” Gearhardt told W5.
The markers for food addiction include intense cravings, loss of control, inability to stop despite knowing the negative impact, and a tendency to relapse. Using that scale, Gearhardt estimates that 15 per cent of people in North America have a physical addiction to food.
Her research has pinpointed certain types of food that, in some people, trigger addictive eating. They are: pizza, fries, cheeseburgers, chocolate, potato chips, cookies and ice cream. The common denominator is that all those foods are stripped of nutrients and then highly processed, just like other addictive substances like cigarettes.
“We all eat nicotine in our foods. Nicotine is in potatoes and eggplants. But it’s not until you take the nicotine and strip it and add thousands of other chemicals to refine it and make it hyper rewarding that people get addicted,” she said.
Gearhardt says the same is true for highly processed fast food. She points to brain scans that show the same areas of the brain light up when eating those foods as when consuming illicit drugs.
Critics argue that food should not be considered an addictive substance because there is no definable “high” or withdrawal or clear risk of overdose.
For Matthew, who has experienced drug addiction, there is no debate. When he eats, he says “it’s like the euphoria high. It’s like I shot up with a big hit of heroin. I’d sit back in my chair, do the hit and enjoy it and I do the same thing with food.”