Studies of food addiction have focused on highly palatable foods. While fast food falls squarely into that category, it has several other attributes that may increase its salience. This review examines whether the nutrients present in fast food, the characteristics of fast food consumers or the presentation and packaging of fast food may encourage substance dependence, as defined by the American Psychiatric Association. The majority of fast food meals are accompanied by a soda, which increases the sugar content 10-fold. Sugar addiction, including tolerance and withdrawal, has been demonstrated in rodents but not humans. Caffeine is a “model” substance of dependence; coffee drinks are driving the recent increase in fast food sales. Limited evidence suggests that the high fat and salt content of fast food may increase addictive potential. Fast food restaurants cluster in poorer neighborhoods and obese adults eat more fast food than those who are normal weight. Obesity is characterized by resistance to insulin, leptin and other hormonal signals that would normally control appetite and limit reward. Neuroimaging studies in obese subjects provide evidence of altered reward and tolerance. Once obese, many individuals meet criteria for psychological dependence. Stress and dieting may sensitize an individual to reward. Finally, fast food advertisements, restaurants and menus all provide environmental cues that may trigger addictive overeating. While the concept of fast food addiction remains to be proven, these findings support the role of fast food as a potentially addictive substance that is most likely to create dependence in vulnerable populations.
Keywords: Adolescence, dieting behavior, eating disorders, fast food, food addiction, menu labeling, obesity, reward, environmental cues, stress
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