“[T]he theory that the brain responds to high-fat, high-calorie foods similarly to how it responds to drugs is now gaining scientific muscle, led by renowned names in the field of addiction,” reports The Daily Beast’s Laura Beil in an October 28, 2012, article describing so-called food addiction as “one of the hottest topics in obesity research.” In particular, Beil recounts the work undertaken by former tobacco researchers such as Mark Gold, who now chairs the University of Florida’s Department of Psychiatry, as well as animal studies that examine how brain chemicals respond to “highly palatable” foods. The article also explains human brain scans that have led scientists to focus attention on dopamine receptors, which “can reveal a great deal about the dynamics of pleasure, reward motivation, and addiction,” and hormones such as ghrelin that help regulate the desire to eat.

Although Beil notes that experts have cited data inconsistencies in the food addiction literature, she nevertheless concedes that this preliminary research “is beginning to change the way some scientists are thinking about the approach to weight loss.” For those who support the food addiction narrative, categorizing “calorie- and fat-dense foods as addictive” could not only lead to better weight loss drugs and programs but widespread efforts like “cigarettestyle taxes and warning labels” designed to curb exposures to highly palatable foods. As former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler reportedly told Beil, regulators and policymakers could learn “from the antitobacco model” and use food addiction research to better address “‘cue-induced wanting,’ or a sudden need triggered by the sight of something.”

“What’s changed in the last four decades?,” Kessler asked. “We changed our environment. We increased the number of cues. We made it socially acceptable to eat any time.” His point was echoed by Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity Director Kelly Brownell, who highlighted concerns about food marketing to children. “If parents start to believe that these foods are having a negative effect on the brains of their children, they might very well want to keep them away from their kids,” said Brownell about the practical consequences of an accepted food addiction model. “They may not want schools to be selling them. To me, these are the big implications.”