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Does High-Impulsivity Trigger Food Addiction?

Addiction specialists and researchers know that people affected by symptoms of food addiction have an unusually strong tendency toward impulsive behavior or impulsivity. However, less is known about whether increased impulsivity helps trigger food addiction or only starts to appear after such an addiction begins to take its toll. The researchers say that high levels of impulsive food-related behavior typically precede and predict the onset of food addiction. Thus, nutritional assessment can be a good tool to control food addiction and avoid impulsivity.

Addiction is characterized by lasting physical and chemical alterations inside the brain’s pleasure center, as well as by a related range of biological and behavioral changes, such as a compelling urge to gain further access to the source of the addiction, loss of the ability to control actions that maintain an addiction and the shirking of established responsibilities in favor of addiction-related activities. Classically, these problems are associated with the excessive and repeated consumption of drugs or alcohol.

However, current scientific findings have firmly determined that the same basic set of symptoms can appear in an individual who does not use drugs or alcohol but instead excessively and repeatedly participates in certain everyday activities that don’t result in dysfunction in most people. Experts in the field commonly use any one of three terms—behavioral addiction, process addiction, or addictive disorder—to describe this non-substance-based form of addiction.

Food addiction is a behavioral addiction centered on the compulsive, uncontrolled intake of one or more types of food. Specific foods associated with the presence of such an addiction include sugar-heavy snacks or desserts, salt-heavy snacks, high-fat foods, and foods with high starch content. A number of screening tools are available to help doctors identify people likely affected by a dysfunctional and compulsive relationship to food consumption.

As the average person transitions from childhood and adolescence to adulthood, he or she naturally develops an increasing ability to control his or her momentary urges and use logic to determine the best way to proceed in any given situation. However, not all people develop the same amount of behavioral control, and some teenagers and adults display a noted inability to exercise age-appropriate impulse restraint. Psychologists and psychiatrists commonly refer to this lack of adequate restraint as a high level of impulsivity. Serious health issues associated with high impulsivity levels include increased risks for accidental or intentional injury, as well as increased risks for diagnosable problems with substance abuse/addiction, bipolar disorder, and certain personality disorders.

The researchers have conducted laboratory experiments on rats to explore the relationship between impulsive behavior and food addiction to identify impulsive behaviors in a group of rats. Based on various research findings, the experts say that the presence of high impulsivity helps predict future involvement in behaviors that indicate the onset of food addiction. Moreover, they say that impulsive, food-related behavior may be a remnant of a long-ago past where human beings commonly had to struggle to find adequate food sources. In a modern society filled with food choices, this behavior can have very negative consequences.

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