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Food Addiction, Redux

Arguments over food “addiction” miss the point: You can’t sue evolution.

CBS News reported last week on research conducted by a University of Wisconsin neuroscientist, Ann Kelly. In the piece, Kelly says that “food can affect the brain in a very similar way as addictive drugs."

Law professor and tobacco foe John Banzhaf told the network that this “could be the smoking gun,” that shows that “fat is the next tobacco.” Elizabeth Whelan of the American Council for Science and Health shot back that this approach is “abandoning personal responsibility.”

Unfortunately, everyone is missing the context here. The reason addictive drugs affect the brain is because they act on systems designed to make the most energy-rich foods attractive to us. In the environment in which humans evolved, addictive drugs were non-existent and eating sweet and fatty foods was a ticket to survival and successful reproduction, not obesity.

These foods don’t “act like drugs,” addictive drugs fool the brain into thinking it’s getting either energy-rich foods (or sex or other evolutionarily-derived drivers of survival and reproduction).

Fast-food isn’t hijacking a brain system devised by evolution to allow us to be heroin addicts: it’s acting on a system that historically attracted us to what was healthy.

Further, neither tempting foods, nor sex, nor drugs eliminate willpower. Even when exposed to heroin, most people don’t develop lasting addictions. Those who do have pre-existing vulnerabilities, due to some combination of genetic and environmental influences.

What this means for the regulation of both food and drugs is that it’s not a simple matter of people being either victims of food or drug dealers or decent folk who take responsibility for their lives. The systems that drive behavior are attuned to a hunter-gatherer world, not a modern one. They can produce behavior that is not in an individual’s best interests.

Calling this “addiction” in every instance obscures rather than illuminates the problem. It would be helpful if the media could get over this buzzword and examine people’s actual behavior.