Can you be addicted to food? Theory on what’s fuelling North America’s obesity problem gains ground


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Southampton, Ont. – Matthew Mahone is 46 years old and is afraid he won’t be able to see 50.

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“The last time I was in the hospital, all my organs were shutting down. My lungs, my heart, my kidneys, my liver. Everything was saying ‘Sayonara Slim,’ we’re out of here,” he told W5.

When Matthew was last weighed, the scale was 760 pounds. This is a burden he blames not on lack of will, but on addiction.


“It’s the same with an alcoholic. They say ‘Quit alcohol’. Not that easy. Even with an addict..’Just give up.’ It’s easier said than done.”

Matthew knows a thing or two about addiction. He was addicted to heroin for 14 years. He believes that his drug abuse hid his childhood addiction to food. It’s an addiction that he says came back with a vengeance when he kicked heroin.

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His mother, Debbie Underwood, says she worries more about Matthew now than he was when he was addicted to drugs; “I have her text me everyday and say ‘Morning Mom,’ so I know she’s there. That’s exactly what a mother worries about a [drug addicted child]. He is going to get that dose and it will be the last dose.”

The concept of food addiction is not widely accepted in mainstream medical circles. It is not listed as an addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) And yet there is a growing debate about whether people like Matthews have a physical addiction to food.

Dr. Ashley Gearhart is a world leader in the study of food addiction. an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, she has created the first diagnostic tool of its kind called Yale Food Addiction Scale. A scale mimicking questionnaire used to diagnose other addictions such as alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.

“We looked at the literature to see how we diagnose another addiction. And so we wanted to apply those behavioral markers of addiction to the consumption of highly beneficial, processed foods,” Gearhart told W5.

Markers of food addiction include intense craving, loss of control, inability to stop despite knowing the negative effect, and a tendency to relapse. Using that scale, Gearhart estimates that 15 percent of people in North America have a physical addiction to food.

His research has pinpointed certain types of food, which trigger addictive eating in some people. They are: pizza, fries, cheeseburger, chocolate, potato chips, cookies and ice cream. The common denominator is that all those foods are stripped of nutrients and then highly processed, just like other addictive substances like cigarettes.

“We all eat nicotine in our food. Potatoes and eggplants contain nicotine. But it’s not until you take nicotine and strip it and add thousands of other chemicals to refine it and make it excessive make it beneficial that people become addicted,” she said.

Gearhart says the same is true for highly processed fast food. She points to brain scans that show the same areas of the brain when eating those foods as when consuming illicit drugs.

Critics argue that the food should not be considered a narcotic because there is no definite “high” or clear risk of withdrawal or overdose.

For Matthews who has experienced drug addiction, there is no debate. When he eats, he says, “It’s like euphoria. It’s like I shot with a big hit of heroin. I’d sit back in my chair, hit and enjoy it and I’m ready for a meal.” I do the same thing together.”

Watch W5’s ‘The Craving’ on Granthshala, Saturdays at 7 PM


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