The idea that foods rich in fat and sugar may be addictive has generated much interest, as well as controversy, among both scientific and lay communities. Recent research indicates that fatty and sugary food in-and-of itself is not addictive. Rather, the food and the context in which it is consumed interact to produce an addiction-like state. One of the contexts that appears to be important is the intermittent opportunity to consume foods rich in fat and sugar in environments where food is plentiful. Animal research indicates that, under these conditions, intake of the fatty sugary food escalates across time and binge-type behavior develops. However, the mechanisms that account for the powerful effect of intermittency on ingestive behavior have only begun to be elucidated. In this review, it is proposed that intermittency stimulates appetitive behavior that is associated with uncertainty regarding what, when, and how much of the highly palatable food to consume. Uncertainty may stimulate consumption of optional fatty and sugary treats due to differential firing of midbrain dopamine neurons, activation of the stress axis, and involvement of orexin signaling. In short, uncertainty may produce an aversive state that bingeing on palatable food can alleviate, however temporarily. “Food addiction” may not be “addiction” to food at all; it may be a response to uncertainty within environments of food abundance.
Keywords: Binge eating, dopamine, expectancy, mesocorticolimbic, predictability, reward, uncertainty, animal models, intermittent, prefrontal cortex
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