Executive Update

Hunger, Craving or Food Addiction?

If food and calories are necessary to sustain life, then can the word “addiction” realistically apply to the human relationship with food? Is the urge to eat purely a survival behavior, or is it something more?

During this session, a group of nutrition experts discussed their recent scientific findings to gain understanding around this nutritional hot-topic. The panel included Rebecca L. Corwin, Ph.D., associate professor at the Department of Nutritional Sciences at The Pennsylvania State University; Marcia Pelchat, Ph.D., associate member at the Monell Center Philadelphia; and Bart De Johnge, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Department of Biobehavioral and Health Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

Some believe the concept of food addiction has largely been perpetuated and sensationalized by the media. Corwin contends that although behavioral problems relating to food intake exist, she is not convinced that the ingredients in food are the real culprit.

“By focusing on the ingredients, you’re taking attention away from the real problem.” said Corwin.

She added that the circumstances surrounding a person’s consumption are more significant than what specifically is being consumed – so, how you eat is more important than what you eat.

Dr. Pelchat deciphered the words most commonly used, often times interchangeably, when people talk about foods – liking, wanting, craving, and reward-defined (“it’s rewarding”).

“Wanting and liking are not the same thing,” Pelchat explained. “For example, I like chocolate cake, but I don’t currently want any. So they’re not exactly the same thing.” Cravings, on the other hand, are a very strong desire for a particular food. When someone has a craving, Pelchat said they are activating a sensory memory of what it feels like to eat something.

Pelchat’s research indicates that brain activation is associated with food cravings in three areas of the brain. However, since food is supposed to stimulate these brain circuits, such findings cannot suggest the legitimacy of food addiction.

Rather than focusing on what’s in our food, Pelchat said the focus should be on reducing cue salience and behavior modification techniques that help reduce compulsive food intake.

De Johnge wrapped up the session with his unique focus on the neurobiological science around food intake regulation mechanisms. He discussed how humans are hardwired to sense when to stop eating, as satiation signals released in the gastrointestinal tract indicate when one should terminate ongoing feeding.

De Johnge’s recent research studies suggest that one type of satiation signal, the GLP-1 hormone, may be instrumental in reaching scientific understanding of how the body communicates and adapts, which he sees as a key component in treating and preventing obesity.