Science and Law
28th March 2013

How Plaintiffs’ Lawyers May Link Food Addiction to Obesity

First, the concept and definition of “food addiction” remains controversial among scientists, clinicians, and the general public, primarily because no single definition exists (leaving it open to interpretation). For example, neither the DSM-IV or the WHO’s ICD-10 recognize ‘food addiction’ nor the concept of ‘addiction’ as a diagnosis.

How Plaintiffs’ Lawyers May Link Food Addiction to Obesity

Are Plaintiffs’ lawyers finally getting traction with food addiction and obesity? Well, not likely.

   © Erinoh | Dreamstime Stock Photos

First, the concept and definition of “food addiction” remains controversial among scientists, clinicians, and the general public, primarily because no single definition exists (leaving it open to interpretation). For example, neither the DSM-IV or the WHO’s ICD-10 recognize ‘food addiction’ nor the concept of ‘addiction’ as a diagnosis. While there are diagnostic criteria around “substance dependence,” there are no diagnostic criteria for “behavioral” addictions (such as gambling, or food addiction). Food addiction falling into “behavioral” category since the available scientific evidence supporting the addictive properties of food ingredients is extremely limited. Further, according to a WLF Monograph titled “The Manipulation of “Addiction” and Its Influence over Obesity Policy”, it is argued that the “word addiction has become so extended and consequently overused that everything is now addictive” and is applied as a psychological explanation for habitual behaviors which do not lead to physical dependence, increasing tolerance to a substance, and withdrawal.

The data evaluating a link between food addiction and obesity are relatively scant, complex, and often unsystematic and descriptive in nature. Different researchers use different definitions of food addiction and different endpoints as measures of food addiction, making it difficult to compare data across studies or to generalize study data to different populations. For example, from a recent comprehensive review on this topic, the authors note: “Although it is attractive to borrow concepts from the neurobiological study of drug addiction to explore compulsive food seeking behaviors or ‘food addiction,’ there are major fundamental differences between modeling a disease state (i.e., addiction) and modeling a complex physiological response that may lead to later somatic disease (i.e., compulsive food seeking leading to obesity).” Furthermore, obesity has a complex etiology, and some late-breaking data suggest microorganisms in the gut are the latest link. And of course, addiction (generally) in humans is another extremely complex phenomenon.

How Plaintiffs’ Lawyers May Link Food Addiction to Obesity

There is no doubt that Plaintiffs’ lawyers are tuned into this topic, and discussions were readily identified on a number of sites (for example one here, and another here).  Also giving a voice to this side of the debate is Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, who makes the case that food and drug addictions have much in common, particularly in the way that both disrupt the parts of the brain involved in pleasure and self-control.

Currently, Plaintiffs’ lawyers may have to rely mostly on animal data to link food addiction to obesity, with a scattering of human investigations, like the Volkow one mentioned above. From the animal data, theories are put forth which purport that highly palatable foods (i.e. high-fat and/or high-sugar) stimulate the brain’s reward centers through dopamine, and these types of foods demonstrate effects in the brain akin to addictive drugs such as heroin, or morphine. Clinical studies have asserted food craving in normal weight and obese individuals activates areas of the brain similar to those observed in drug addiction (See Pelchat 2004, and Stoeckel 2008 as just two examples). As alluded to previously, data from brain and behavioral studies of food addiction demonstrate varied and conflicting results, and as with animal studies, the translation of their findings to humans remains unknown.

No Demonstrated Link between Food Addiction and Obesity

The body of scientific literature on food addiction has surged in the last decade or so, with growing interest among clinicians and researchers. However, there appears to be little to no consensus among the scientific community on its existence or critical characteristics. Further, the link between food addiction and obesity is speculative at most.

In a recent article titled Is food addiction a valid and useful concept, the authors point out that the current human neuroscience literature is “inconsistent and sometimes conflicting,” and “the findings thus far do not support an addiction model or indeed any one model of altered brain function in obesity.”  They continue: “At the outset, it is important to state that we share with many others the view that FA [food addiction] is unlikely to be a causal pathway in the majority of people with obesity, which is a highly heterogenous syndrome.  Indeed, an examination of the possible routes to obesity makes clear that an addiction model has a limited, if any, place in understanding obesity.”

Moving forward, Plaintiff lawyers undoubtedly face a formidable barrier in demonstrating causation in this area. That is, the many potential etiological factors for obesity would have to be ruled out before food addiction could be considered a cause.

Investigations in this area continue to emerge, and it will be important to review the science carefully. Currently, the scientific evidence does not support a causal association between food addiction and obesity.

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