An increasingly influential perspective conceptualizes both obesity and overeating as a food addiction accompanied by corresponding brain changes. Because there are far-reaching implications for clinical practice and social policy if it becomes widely accepted, a critical evaluation of this model is important. We examine the current evidence for the link between addiction and obesity, identifying several fundamental shortcomings in the model, as well as weaknesses and inconsistencies in the empirical support for it from human neuroscientific research.
Is food addiction a valid and useful concept? Short answer: probably not.
In this paper, we consider the concept of food addiction from a clinical and neuroscientific perspective. Food addiction has an established and growing currency in the context of models of overeating and obesity, and its acceptance shapes debate and research. However, we argue that the evidence for its existence in humans is actually rather limited and, in addition, there are fundamental theoretical difficulties that require consideration. We therefore review food addiction as a phenotypic description, one that is based on overlap between certain eating behaviours and substance dependence. To begin, we consider limitations in the general application of this concept to obesity. We share the widely held view that such a broad perspective is not sustainable and consider a more focused view: that it underlies particular eating patterns, notably binge eating. However, even with this more specific focus, there are still problems. Validation of food addiction at the neurobiological level is absolutely critical, but there are inconsistencies in the evidence from humans suggesting that caution should be exercised in accepting food addiction as a valid concept. We argue the current evidence is preliminary and suggest directions for future work that may provide more useful tests of the concept.