Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity has published a study that reportedly compares addictive eating behavior in both obese and lean women to substance dependence. Ashley Gearhardt, et al., “Neural Correlates of Food Addiction,” Archives of General Psychiatry, April 2011. According to an April 4, 2011, press release, researchers assessed the addictive eating behavior of 48 adolescent women ranging from lean to obese, then used “brain-imaging procedures” to examine (i) “how the brain responded to cues signaling the impending delivery of a highly palatable food (chocolate milkshake) versus cues signaling the impending delivery of a tasteless control solution,” and (ii) how the brain responded “during the actual intake of the chocolate milkshake versus the tasteless solution.”

The results apparently suggested that both lean and obese subjects “with higher food addiction scores showed different brain activity patterns than those with lower food addiction scores,” exhibiting “greater activity in parts of the brain responsible for cravings and motivation to eat, but less activity in the regions responsible for inhibiting urges such as the desire to drink a milkshake.” As lead author Ashley Gearhardt explained, these findings “support the theory that compulsive eating may be driven in part by an enhanced anticipation of food rewards and that addictive individuals are more likely to be physiologically, psychologically, and behaviorally reactive to triggers such as advertising.”

The study authors have thus concluded that changes to the current food environment “may be critical to successful weight loss and prevention efforts.” They particularly noted that “ubiquitous food advertising and the availability of inexpensive palatable food may make it extremely difficult to adhere to healthier food choices because the omnipresent food cues trigger the reward system,” thereby limiting the effectiveness of “the current emphasis on personal responsibility as the anecdote [sic] to increasing obesity rates.”