People can become hooked on eating for its own sake but not to consuming specific foods such as those high in sugar or fat, research suggests.
An international team of scientists finds no strong evidence for individuals being hooked on caffeine substances in a few foods.
The brain doesn’t respond to nutrients in the same manner because it gives addictive drugs such as cocaine or heroin, the researchers say.
Instead, people can develop a psychological compulsion to consume, driven through the positive feelings the brain associates with eating.
This is a behavioral disorder and is categorized alongside conditions for example gambling addiction, say scientists at the University of Edinburgh.
They add that the focus on tackling the issue of obesity should be moved from food itself towards the individual’s relationship with eating.
The study, which examined the scientific evidence for food addiction as a substance-based addiction, is published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.
The researchers also state that the present classification of mental disorders, which doesn’t permit a proper proper diagnosis of eating addiction, could be redrawn. However, more research could be needed to define a diagnosis, the scientists add.
The work was carried in the Universities of Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Gothenburg, Essen, Utrecht and Santiago de Compostela.
The researchers are involved in the NeuroFAST consortium, that is an EU-funded project studying the neurobiology of eating behavior, addiction and stress.
Dr John Menzies, Research Fellow in the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Integrative Physiology, said: “People try to find rational explanations for being over-weight which is easy to blame food.
“Certain individuals will have an addictive-like relationship with food items and they can over-eat despite knowing the risks to their health. More avenues for treatment may open up when we consider this condition as a behavioural addiction as opposed to a substance-based addiction.”
Professor Suzanne Dickson, of the University of Gothenburg and co-ordinator of the NeuroFAST project, added: “There’s been a major debate over whether sugar is addictive. There is certainly hardly any evidence to support the concept that any ingredient, food item, additive or mixture of ingredients has addictive properties.”