Currently, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM-IV) – recognised by psychiatrists and scientists worldwide as the standard reference for the classification of mental health disorders. Food addiction, however, is not included.
However, scientists throughout the world working on an updated version of the manual are discussing whether the manual should include behavioural addictions and, if so, whether and where food consumption behaviours might sit within the manual.
Dr Mercer is one of a team of scientists from the European NeuroFAST consortium, looking to build the evidence base for or against food addiction.
Dr Mercer said: “If we can reach a consensus on how overeating should be classified this could lead to major changes in clinical treatment and public policy surrounding obesity.
“It would help firstly to clarify if food addiction is a route to binge eating or obesity. Recognition of different routes to overweight and obesity could lead to more targeted treatment for defined groups, giving individuals clinical help which is specific and pertinent to their situation.
“This could mean that, in the future, overeating could be recognised as the consequence of food addiction in a small sub group of individuals, and the treatment they are offered may have convergence with that which is offered to drug/alcohol abusers.
“As current evidence stands there are arguments for and against whether there is a convergence between overeating and drug and alcohol addiction.
“The arguments which suggest there is a convergence include the fact that palatable food is appealing to us because it activates reward centres in the brain, triggering signalling molecules in the opioid and dopamine systems. These same systems – opioid and dopamine – are triggered when we use drugs or alcohol.
“In morbid obesity we also see changes in the dopamine systems in the brain which are similar to the changes in the dopamine system of a person who is addicted to drugs or alcohol.
“There are also arguments however that would suggest there is no such convergence between overeating and other classified addictions. These include the fact that eating is a necessity to survive and not a lifestyle choice that can be avoided.
“Also whereas drugs and alcohol are made of just one identifiable molecule, foods are made of a mix of hundreds or thousands of different chemicals – therefore there is not a direct comparison.
“Importantly, to date there is no scientific evidence for a single nutritional compound or a mixture exerting addictive-like behaviour, as nicotine, alcohol or heroin would, to name a few compounds very well known for their addictive potency.”
Source: The University of Aberdeen
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