“Now that I don’t binge, I have more time to read.”

Email from a reader:

Food addiction is REAL. Sweet foods are potentially more addictive than heroin or cocaine. It’s going to take more than 50 years to reverse the tide of the global obesity pandemic. How do I know this? Well – years of personal experience as a food addict and sugar junkie apart, over the last few months I have been reading Brownell and Gold’s Book “Food and Addiction”. I sit down and read it for fifteen minutes each day over my delicious abstinent (for me, being abstinent is not eating sugar, grains or starchy foods, eating only three meals a day and I do this every day without exception) breakfast. The book is subtitled “A comprehensive handbook” but it is so much more than that. This book is an extensive academic research compendium laid out as a series of academic papers (two columns per page, Vancouver-style referencing) containing 66 articles in seven parts. 

This may sound off-putting to the casual reader but in reality, this is one of the most compelling and fascinating books I have read for a long time. And it’s one of the few books that I have ever read that – when I had finished reading it – made me want to turn back to page 1 and re-read the whole book again!

The sections take the reader on a journey – starting with the neuro-anatomy, neuro-biology and psychology of addiction, through to clinical approaches to and implications of addiction and obesity via research on food and addiction and ending up with public health approaches and legal and policy implications for the global obesity pandemic.

This book’s great strength is its impartiality. There are so many other books out there about the gut, diet, just about any food group….…. as a food addict  struggling to control my compulsive behaviour around food I have read many of them, and I always feel slightly uneasy that the author is only really representing the research that supports their hypothesis and the inevitable “eating plan that is going to change your life” at the end.

In this book, if there is no research then that is not ignored or padded out with some obscure paper reporting small numbers.  It is just stated.  Where a food addiction research vacuum exists, there is discussion as to how the available research might apply to food addiction and what further research needs to be done.

So – what did I learn in reading this book? Several key themes emerged:

1–There is an awful lot of very elegant research that has been carried out on sugar, addictive behaviour, reward neuro-circuitry, how these interact and what influences them. OK – so much of the research for that was carried out on mice but – bearing in mind we share 60% of our DNA with a banana – mouse behaviour and brain structure ain’t that far away from humans – especially around behaviour as fundamental as reward, addiction and food intake regulation. Where comparisons are possible, the human research is clearly analogous to what they are finding in rats and mice. 

2–The idea that a lot of our reward circuitry is hard wired not only from a young age but also during fetal life made a great deal of sense to me. Hell – if  whale blubber or mammoth is/was the only item on the menu, and that’s all your Mom ate when you were in her womb – then you had better be born with a preference for the major food source in your community. It’s simple survival.

3–The concept of control of weight and body shape through delicate and intricate internal balancing (homeostatic) mechanisms which have evolved over millennia versus loss of control of weight and body shape through hedonistic (pleasure) eating – particularly highly refined carbohydrates and sugar was a new concept for me. Since food is needed for survival, it is likely to have complex and interconnected mechanisms for making sure that we are motivated to find food, remember those sources and to protect them. This all takes place in the parts of our brain associated with reward, emotion, and memory, to say nothing of the feedback via the enormous communication highway that exists between our brain, our gut and our gut bacteria. 

4–We are hard wired to like sweet flavours. Sweet foods are more likely to be energy dense – which is clearly advantageous when life was hard and food was seasonal and scarce – but does not serve us well in our current food environment. Imagine – millennia of evolving higher functions around eating for survival laid waste by just reaching out and putting a single tub of Ben and Jerry’s in my shopping basket!!

5–The food/sugar lobby is more powerful than the tobacco lobby and we have to eat. There is evidence that the food/sugar corporations are using the same tactics that the tobacco lobbies used back in the day so I expect that it will take as long, if not longer, if ever, for per capita obesity levels to show a similar fall to tobacco consumption (Figure 1). 

Figure 1:  Adult per capita cigarette consumption and major smoking and health events – US, 1900 – 2017. Sources: Adapted from Warner 1985 with permission from Massachusetts Medical Society, © 1985; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 1989; Creek et al. 1994; U.S. Department of Agriculture 2000; U.S. Census Bureau 2017; U.S. Department of the Treasury 2017.  

So – why did I read this book? As a recovered alcoholic and food addict I wanted to explore more about the dis-ease that I suffer from. Coming from a scientific/academic sort of mindset and being a bit of a nerd, this book appealed to me on many different levels. But even for those that don’t have that  background, this is a great book for just dipping into when the interest takes you.

It helped me to understand my part in my story and also to understand more clearly why this dis-ease wasn’t just going to go away after a few months of eating abstinently. It also helps me to accept myself as a person whose brain just happens to be wired in a different way – a way that makes me prone to addiction and addictive behaviour……. but also a way that qualifies me for a life in addiction recovery and all the benefits and rewards that that brings. 

Susanna R

Oxford University Press, 2012