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Food Addiction: An Examination of the Diagnostic Criteria for Dependence

Gearhardt, Ashley N. MS; Corbin, William R. PhD; Brownell, Kelly D. PhD

Journal of Addiction Medicine: March 2009 - Volume 3 - Issue 1 - pp 1-7
doi: 10.1097/ADM.0b013e318193c993
Review Article

The evidence for food’s addictive properties is steadily growing. In addition to clinical and evolutionary plausibility, the possibility of addiction to food is supported by animal model research and increasingly by research with humans. Much as classic drugs of abuse “hijack” the brain, accumulating evidence with food suggests a similar impact, but with weaker effects. Although neurobiological evidence for food addiction is compelling, dependence as conceptualized with respect to alcohol and other drugs of abuse is fundamentally a behavioral disorder. Thus, we review the current state of food addiction research in the context of each of the diagnostic criterion for dependence (ie, tolerance, withdrawal, loss of control) and briefly explore other relevant addiction topics such as expectancies, reinforcement, and incentive salience. There is substantial evidence that some people lose control over their food consumption, suffer from repeated failed attempts to reduce their intake, and are unable to abstain from certain types of food or reduce consumption in the face of negative consequences. Although there is some evidence for other dependence criterion, further research is needed to examine tolerance and withdrawal to high-fat sweets, time spent in obtaining, using, and recovering from excess food consumption and the degree to which important activities are given up due to overconsumption. As science continues forward and both the public and elected leaders become aware that food may trigger an addictive process, this information will likely be used to inform policy. Thus, researchers need to carefully consider the implications of their work and the way in which the results may be interpreted.

From the Department of Psychology, Yale University, New Haven, CT.

Received for publication September 16, 2008; accepted November 3, 2008.

Send correspondence and reprint requests to Ashley Gearhardt, Department of Psychology, Yale University, Box 208205, New Haven, CT 06520-8205. e-mail: Ashley.Gearhardt@yale.edu

© 2009 American Society of Addiction Medicine