The Science of Food Addictions
Food Addiction
The Science of Food Addictions

Studies have confirmed that food addictions are real and can lead to obesity due to uncontrolled eating. The science of food addictions is easily explained as a loss of control when it comes to eating and is considered a psychologically-based eating disorder. Detailed studies of genetics, brain imaging, and other chemical malfunctions have proven that the body can become addicted to food, leaving individuals more susceptible to obesity.

Eating is a normal part of life and is necessary for survival. Although eating is not considered to be an addictive behavior, people can become addicted to food, in a similar way people become addicted to drugs or alcohol

What is a Food Addiction?

Addiction is characterized as uncontrolled behavioral patterns that, almost always, negatively impact your health. It is a disorder that results in the compulsive engagement of your brain's reward center. When a patient develops an addiction, the brain craves the reward of a behavior or substance. In response, many patients will continue to engage their reward center to experience those feelings of euphoria, happiness, and other positive emotions.

Individuals with food addiction are often driven to eat foods with a high-sugar, high-fat content. The science of food addictions is a controversial topic, with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) not even listing it as a condition. However, food addiction is often characterized by the following behaviors: 

  • Compulsive eating or overeating 
  • Uncontrolled cravings 
  • Binge eating or disordered eating patterns 

The Science of Food Addictions

Research has shown that certain foods stimulate the hippocampus, a brain region responsible for learning and memory. In many cases, foods that are highly processed and full of sugars have the "greatest addictive potential." 

When the hippocampus is stimulated, it will trigger the release of hormones, such as dopamine (or the "feel good" hormone), which is a part of the brain's "reward system." Apart from actually consuming the food resulting in dopamine release, some studies suggest that the anticipation of food can trigger desires and cravings.

The actual science of food addictions originates from a continual lack of controlled eating—i.e., binging on, most often, junk food. Over time, this loss of control regarding eating alters the biochemistry of the hippocampus part of the brain. Thus, an individual must consume more food to achieve the same amount of euphoria or pleasure related to eating.

The Association Between Food Addiction and Bariatric Surgery 

Studies suggest that food addiction is evident in obese individuals seeking bariatric surgery. And the good news is that having a food addiction before bariatric surgery does not mean you will have it post-operatively. However, a food addiction pre-operatively could lead to a higher risk of disordered eating or other mental disorders after bariatric surgery. 

In one study of 130 bariatric patients that were six months post-op, 18% had been identified as having disordered eating that met food addiction standards. Similarly, it was also concluded that this subgroup of patients was at an increased risk of developing eating disorders, unhealthy eating behaviors, and depression. 

It is believed that up to 30% of bariatric surgery patients may experience a transfer addiction, most commonly trading a food addiction for another dependence. Yet, patients are still at risk of developing addictive behaviors after bariatric surgery regardless of whether they identify with having a food addiction. 

Therefore, it is important to be aware of the increased probability of developing another mental disorder, especially for patients who have struggled with impulse control in the past. If you can proactively manage your food addiction and other addictive behaviors, you will experience all the benefits of weight loss surgery.

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Casey Blaney
Casey is the Chief Operating Officer of Bariatric Centers of America, where she oversees client relations and manages the bariatric playbook for program acceleration. Casey graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with a major in Business Operations and built her career in marketing and business management. Within her career, she has had the opportunity to accelerate bariatric programs through technology-driven services and solutions. She brings an innovative approach to scaling bariatric programs and providing valuable resources in the field of weight loss surgery and weight management.
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