Heroin Or Häagen-Dazs? Which Is More Addictive?

Can you see her brain light up?: image via the-ice-cream-maker.comCan you see her brain light up?: image via the-ice-cream-maker.com If you think that being 'addicted to food' is just an expression, think again.  This study, conducted by researchers at Yale, University of Texas, and Arizona State University, reveals some interesting similarities between food addiction and drug addiction.  Can the brain tell the difference?

In the study, 48 healthy women ranging in weight from normal to obese, completed a questionnaire that tested for signs of food addiction. Then, using fMRI (function magnetic resonance imaging), part of the group looked at a photo of a yummy-looking chocolate shake, while the remainder saw a photo of a very bland drink. 

For another fMRI, half the women actually drank a delicious Häagen-Dazs shake, and the others... unfortunately, for them, drank a flavorless no-cal mixture.

The researchers found that the women who had high scores of food addiction on the questionnaire showed more brain activity when they saw a picture of the delicious shake.  In fact, the areas of the brain that lit up - the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex, and the medial orbitofrontal cortex - were the same as when drug addicts are shown photos of drugs or drug-related paraphernalia.  And the area of the brain that is responsible for self-control - the lateral orbitofrontal cortex - showed very little activity.

But unlike drug abusers, the food-addicted women did not show much decline in the addiction areas of the brain once they ate the food, nor did their interest in it subside.  Additionally, contrary to what we might think, food addiction did not necessarily coincide with obesity, as there were food addicts of normal weight and non-addicted obese persons. Clearly, the investigators concluded, there are subtleties in food addiction that call for continued investigation.

Though it was found that the brain may see food and drug additions in the same way, the laboratory setting may not provide enough information about the settings and conditions in which the food addiction occurs, nor in what situations it can be controlled.


Time, Archives of General Psychiatry