Despite studies, food addiction still not recognized as medical disorder

By Cait Davidson
Ryersonian Staff

The Oreo has been America’s bestselling cookie for more than a century, with people choosing them over thin mints, gingersnaps and shortbread.

However, a study released last month by Connecticut College argues that Oreos are not only one of America’s favourite sweets; they can also be just as addicting as cocaine or even morphine. The researchers found that high-fat and high-sugar foods can be as addictive as certain drugs.

But some have noticed possible flaws in the study, arguing that simply because lab rats happen to love Oreos, it doesn’t prove the cookies can be more physically and mentally addictive than drugs like cocaine.

“There’s no way Oreos are as addictive as cocaine — ask anyone who has tried both,” said Bruce McKay, a behavioural neuroscientist at Wilfrid Laurier University.
McKay pointed to a study published at the University of Guelph in 2012 researching addiction, which states “although many individuals try addictive drugs, only a few develop dependence.” This new research sought to prove that, at least in rats, food addiction works in the same way.

The news coverage of the Connecticut College study — which has not been officially published or peer reviewed — said that Oreos were definitively more addictive than cocaine for rats.
“The one redeeming feature about that article though, is that it will raise the public’s attention to the possibility that foods are addictive,” said McKay.

According to Stephanie Cassin, an assistant professor and researcher in Ryerson’s psychology department, the foods people are most likely to binge on are the “forbidden foods … things that they have strong food rules on.” Cassin argues that whether the indulgence is pizza or Oreos, these foods activate the same pleasure centres as illicit substances.

Oreo vs. Cocaine

Oreos are high-fat and high-sugar making them a “forbidden food.” (Maria Siassina/Ryersonian Staff)

Although food addiction is not recognized as a medical disorder, studies like the ones at Connecticut College and the University of Guelph are strides toward proving the existence of the disorder.

But Cassin isn’t convinced food addiction exists.

“How can you be addicted to something you need to survive?” she said.

Cassin says people build up tolerance to illicit drugs, and when the drug ingestion stops, the user experiences painful, physical withdrawal. But when it comes to research on food addiction, there has been “no strong evidence of withdrawal.” Cassin asserted that “the jury’s still out” on food addiction, arguing media outlets and the resulting coverage of the Connecticut College study were misguided in their embellishment of the findings. She said it was “a really big stretch to say … Oreos are as addictive as cocaine.”

But that doesn’t mean a degree of food addiction is impossible for Dr. Vera Tarman, founder of Addictions Unplugged, a website serving as a discussion forum for medical professionals, addiction workers and addicts. She looked to a study performed at Memorial University that said five per cent of people were food addicts. The study is one of many that has yet to win over most doctors.

“Food addiction as a medical diagnosis doesn’t exist. It’s still too new,” Tarman said.

Tarman believes food addiction could be prevalent in as much as 20 per cent of the general public. For people suffering from obesity, diabetes or addiction to alcohol, the rate could be as high as 40 per cent.

Along with other practitioners in her field, Tarman is working to develop criteria to help define and diagnose food addiction. Her current criteria are based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychological Disorders. In order to help food addicts, medical practitioners need to be able to identify them first. But assistance for those struggling with the addiction is currently limited.

“You’re not going to get specialists,” Tarman said. “Food addicts anonymous and overeaters anonymous are … the best you’re going to get right now.” Though these programs are limited, they are free. This is fortunate for those who are most likely to suffer from food addiction – low-income individuals.

Cassin said that for someone who struggles with eating, the addiction can “feel real.” During drug rehabilitation, abstinence is normally recommended entirely. However, for those who struggle with their eating habits, it’s good to have those forbidden foods in moderation.

Tarman believes food addiction is more prevalent than tobacco addiction.

“It sounds silly, but it is true. Silly, embarrassing … shameful — all obstacles to ‘coming out’ and saying this is serious.”

Tarman will hold a public education talk on food addiction at the University of Toronto on Nov. 23.

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