The notion that food is “addictive” has been floating around for years. It’s been rightly criticized for weakening the meaning of the very word “addiction,” and for the Pandora’s box that the mainstreaming of such an idea would open. But the temptation to prove a link is apparently irresistible. Writing in New Scientist this week, Bijal Trivedi points to a number of studies (often on rats) that seem to make the case that donuts are just glorified crystal meth. Count us skeptical, especially since the analysis leaves a lot to be (scientifically) desired. One peer-reviewed article published in the Journal of Nutrition last year, for example, offers some cautionary notes:
Palatable foods are not responsible for the obesity problem, because even nonpalatable foods can come to be desired and potentially overconsumed. It may be the way in which foods are consumed (e.g. alternating access and restriction) rather than their sensory properties that leads to an addictive eating pattern …
Drugs of abuse are different from food. The shared neural substrates for food and drug cravings probably evolved to encourage healthy behaviors such as eating and reproduction (25). Drugs of abuse are undesirable because they are able to take over these substrates and to divert efforts away from healthier goals.
A supplement in the same journal warned that several reports “suggest that even highly palatable food is not addictive in and of itself.” In other words, double bacon cheeseburgers aren’t the new heroin. A pattern of behavior, and not the food itself, may instead be responsible for overeating. (This makes intuitive sense when you think about it.) And withdrawal symptoms from hard drugs—like the shakes, muscle and bone pain, and involuntary kicking movements—aren’t present during food “withdrawal.”
So what’s really driving the movement to prove food addiction is real? If you guessed “lawyers,” you win a cookie. Trivedi adds:
John Banzhaf, a lawyer who teaches public interest law at George Washington University Law School in Washington DC, has been following the research for the last decade…. Banzhaf believes there is now enough research for the US Office of the Surgeon General to issue a report on food addiction, as it did for nicotine addiction in 1988.
It’s no surprise to see Banzhaf, who has backed suing fast-food restaurants, latch onto this latest push. Nor is it shocking that blame-food-first activists Kelly Brownell and David Kessler are supportive of the theory. (Kessler sits on the board of the “food police” Center for Science in the Public Interest.) The addiction theory absolves individuals from any responsibility for their health, and drops it in the laps of deep-pocketed companies that the Banzhafs of this world can sue for a super-sized payday.