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Food Addiction: Potential Policymaker?



When roughly three dozen leaders in the childhood obesity movement gathered in Washington last week for a food marketing roundtable, they discussed an eclectic mix of new research that had been unveiled in recent months. But one new report kept generating mentions, findings that one speaker predicted would be "a game changer" in the obesity prevention effort.

Ever joke that you’re addicted to sweets? Well, you might be onto something.

The April 2011 study from the Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity finds that addictions to food trigger activity in the brain similar to that seen in drug addicts. Lead researcher Ashley Gearhardt tells The Inside Track that these findings could add to a growing body of evidence that combating obesity will require more than urging people to take personal responsibility for their food choices.

As Gearhardt and her colleagues write in "Neural Correlates of Food Addiction," changing the "availability, attributes and costs" of addictive foods — a la tobacco policy over the past two decades — might be a key part of reversing obesity rates.

To come up with their findings, the researchers—including Rudd Center director Kelly Brownell—studied a sample of 39 young women of different weights, and used MRI images to record their brain activity as they were shown images of milkshakes or of a clear, taste-free liquid. Researchers also had the women sample the beverages and recorded their brain activity.

When the women were shown the milkshake picture, the part of their brain craving a substance was activated, as has been shown in drug addicts. When the women sampled the milkshake, the part of their brain that normally would signal them to slow down showed decreased activity, indicating that addictive patterns were being formed.

Although it’s just a start, the Yale study gives real scientific backing to food addiction theories which could prove helpful in potential policy initiatives. "There’s still a lot of work to be done, but if the science keeps coming up the same way it has been, I think it can be a turning point," Gearhardt says.

Gearhardt and her colleagues aren’t done with their work on food addiction, she says. Researchers also plan to study which specific foods create addiction, which also could shape future policy. They suspect salty, sugary and super processed foods are most addictive, but need the science to back up their theory, Gearhardt explains.

Gearhardt compared potential policy surrounding addictive foods to tobacco and alcohol. Although people largely admit alcohol is addictive, it’s treated as largely a personal problem, and alcohol abuse rates haven’t shifted much in recent decades. But tobacco use was treated as a societal one requiring real policy change.

"Once we changed the environment around it, we saw tobacco use go down as much as 50 percent," Gearhardt says.

Gearhardt and her team are also looking at several other follow-ups to the study, she says. They plan on looking at the neurological impact of actual food advertisements, which Gearhardt jokes often come across as "food porn."

Even a food addiction researcher like Gearhardt isn’t immune to the advertisements, she admits. Part of her early research in this area involved watching "junk food commercial after junk food commercial," she says. "I was starving in the end," she adds, laughing.

Researchers also plan to look at the impact food addiction has on children, Gearhardt says. Considering study after study shows that people are more likely to become addicted to a substance the younger they are, studying how young people might become addicted to food could be a way to combat childhood obesity — both in understanding the science behind it, and in creating policy to reduce it.

"So far what I’ve gotten from most people is interest," Gearhardt says of the study. "It’s kind of resonating with people."

Market to Market. While the Yale researchers looked at food addiction, a new report finds that food marketing to children and adolescents is having a clear impact on what kids eat, and is playing a clear role in the childhood obesity epidemic.

The new synthesis from Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, shows that young people are consuming more media than ever before, and food and beverage marketers are aggressive in their efforts to reach youth. The report also shows that the children and adolescents at greatest risk for being overweight or obese, including African-American and Latino youth, are often targeted by marketers. "Unabated, the current food and beverage marketing and media landscape will continue to contribute to child and adolescent obesity," the synthesis reads.

What do you think? Earlier this month, AMC Theatres announced that it will begin selling "AMC Smart MovieSnacks," a snack box consisting of fruit chips, an Odwalla Bar Chocolate Chip Trail Mix, corn chips and bottled water. The box will cost $7.

The movie chain says it’s a choice for moviegoers seeking a healthier option when heading to the theater. It certainly seems healthier than those huge, butter-covered popcorn tubs, supersized candy containers and jumbo soft drinks one normally finds at the concession stand.

But the items in the snack box won’t be sold separately, and some folks are dubious it actually will make much of an impact on moviegoers’ health.

What say you, Inside Track readers? Do you think the AMC snack box is a step in the right direction, or is it just a public relations move? Email me at[email protected], and I’ll publish reaction to the announcement in next week’s newsletter.

On the Calendar. If you don’t know about’s cool cell phone tools, be sure to sign up for our "Cell Phone Tools Webinar" on April 19. Our own Jon Wheeler will give a demo of the tools and show how you can use them in your outreach efforts. Sign up here or email Jon at[email protected] for further details.