Food addiction and the development of human obesity

Sep 9th, 2013

by Sharon Gray

From left are Dr. Ed Randell, Farrell Cahill, Dr. Wayne Gulliver and Danny Wadden. Front from left are Dr. Guang Sun, Alecia Rideout, Paradis Pedram and Hong Wei Zhang.
Food addiction and the development of human obesity

A new paper from the laboratory of Dr. Guang Sun, professor in the Faculty of Medicine at Memorial, shows that food addiction is an important contributing factor in the development of obesity.

“Our findings are the first of their kind in the world,” said Dr. Sun. “We have shown that food addiction is indeed an important contributing factor in the development of obesity. The prevalence of food addiction was 5.4 per cent and increased concomitantly with obesity status defined by either body mass index (BMI) or body fat percentage.”

This is the first scientific study of food addiction at the population level. The paper, titled Food Addiction: Its Prevalence and Significant Association with Obesity in the General Population, was published Sept. 4 in the PLOS ONE journal. The first author is Pardis Pedram, a PhD candidate under the supervision of Dr. Sun. The co-authors include Danny Wadden, Peyvand Amini, Wayne Gulliver, Edward Randell, Farrell Cahill, Sudesh Vasdev, Alan Goodridge, Jacqueline Carter, Guangju Zhai, Yunqi Yi and Guang Sun.

A total of 652 adults from Newfoundland and Labrador – 415 women and 237 men – participated in the study. Food addiction was assessed using the Yale Food Addiction Scale and the macronutrient intake was determined from the Willet Food Frequency Questionnaire. The study found that the clinical symptom count(s) of food addiction (similar to the measurement of fasting blood sugar concentration in diabetic patients) is strongly associated with the severity of obesity. The study also revealed that women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with food addiction than men.  

“More remarkably the clinical symptom count(s) of food addiction are also strongly associated with adiposity measurements in non-food addicted people, or the remaining 94.6 per cent of the population,” said Dr. Sun. “This means that although individuals may not be clinically diagnosed with food addiction, food addiction symptoms are potentially part of the cause of increased fat mass in the general population."

Dr. Sun said the findings regarding the important role of food addiction in the development of human obesity have important influence in the field of obesity study and are a big factor for physicians, insurance companies and governments to consider in treatment method, insurance and government policy-makings just like the battle history of smoking on human health.

Obesity and being overweight is the fifth leading cause of global death and the second most preventable cause of death in the United States.

“Weight gain is usually the result of a complex interaction between an individual’s biology and environmental factors which lead to energy surplus,” explained Dr. Sun. “One important cause of energy surplus is overeating and a proportion of the population may develop an obsessive/compulsive relationship to certain foods. These individuals chronically consume more food than they need to maintain health and show compulsive intake behaviours associated with loss of control of eating.”

Dr. Sun said that accumulating research evidence has documented neurobiological and behavioural similarities between compulsive overeating and psychoactive drug dependence, leading researchers to use the term food addiction to describe this pattern of overeating.

The obesity studies carried out by Dr. Sun’s team are primarily funded by grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).