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Food addiction: The missing piece in the obesity epidemic

Two events at UMass Medical School Oct. 21 and 22 explore diagnosis and treatment


What is food addiction?

Food addiction is a disease which causes loss of control over the ability to stop eating certain foods. Scientifically, food addiction is a cluster of chemical dependencies on specific foods or food in general; after the ingestion of high palatable foods such as sugar, excess fat and/or salt, the brains of some people develop a physical craving for these foods. Over time, the progressive eating of these foods distorts their thinking and leads to negative consequences which they do not want but cannot stop.

If someone eats when they really do not want to or if they persistently eat more food than their body needs, or eat in a way that they know is not good for them, they may be a food addict. There are a number of tests and questionnaires for assessing food addiction. 

Not all overweight people are food addicts, and not all food addicts are overweight. Obesity, eating disorders and chemical dependency on food are three very different medical problems. Some have only one of these medical problems, though it is not unusual for people to have all three.

Since 1995, there have been a number of lines of scientific research that have established evidence of chemical dependency on food. There are a number of other lines of scientific investigation which could illuminate the complexity of food addiction. It is now clear that clinicians view food addiction as not just as one bio-chemical illness but rather as a cluster of several different chemical dependencies and other disorders.

It is possible to recover from food addiction. Treatment is simple but not necessarily easy, and like other addictions and chronic diseases, there is no permanent cure.

SOURCE: The Food Addiction Institute


Mounting evidence indicates that food addiction is a major underlying contributor to the obesity epidemic, and that misdiagnosis and under-treatment of food addiction is a major obstacle to overcoming obesity.

“The scientific consensus is that food addiction is real,” said addiction psychiatrist Douglas Ziedonis, MD, MPH. “Food addiction is a major part of and cause of the current obesity epidemic and a serious public health threat.”

But many patients and health care providers lack the knowledge and skills to confront the problem.

With two events at UMass Medical School for community members and health professionals, Dr. Ziedonis, is shedding light on the latest science about the biology, diagnosis and treatment of food addiction.

On Tuesday, Oct. 21 the Be Mentally Well community lecture series will present “Addressing the Challenge of Obesity: Bariatric Surgery, Behavioral Health and Food Addiction.” Free and open to the public, the program will provide a forum to discuss what people need to know about managing obesity and being overweight, as well as strategies to address obesity including lifestyle changes, bariatric surgery and food addiction treatment.

Panelists are Ziedonis, chair and professor of psychiatry, director of the UMass Center of Excellence in Addictions and co-director of the UMass Center of Excellence in Neurosciences; bariatric surgeon Mitchell Gitkind, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine and surgery and director of the UMass Memorial Weight Center; Weight Center psychologist Jennifer Lauretti, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry; and Phil Werdell, MA, director of the Food Addiction Institute, which is co-sponsoring both events with the UMMS Department of Psychiatry.

The public forum will be will followed by a first-of-its-kind food addiction conference, a full day training event for health care professionals, on Wednesday, Oct. 22. “The Missing Piece in Responses to the Obesity Epidemic: Diagnosing and Treating Food Addiction,” will convene a multidisciplinary panel of UMMS and guest experts who will address topics including:

      • food addiction science;
      • the state of the art of food addiction treatment;
      • a rigorous new diagnostic protocol for food addiction;  
      • dealing with patients who are food addicts; and
      • limits of medication in food addiction treatment.

In addition to Ziedonis, UMMS faculty include addiction psychiatrist and mindfulness researcher Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and psychiatry; and Carl Fulwiler, MD, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Mental Health Services Research at UMMS. Guest lecturers include leading food addiction researcher Nicole Avena, PhD, research neuroscientist for the New York Obesity Research Center at Columbia University; Food Addiction Institute Director Phil Werdell, MA;  and Bitten Jonsson, RN, MS, creator of the food addiction ADDIS—Sugar diagnostic protocol.

In-depth workshops will train attendees to diagnose food addiction and treat patients with complex diagnoses including, but not limited to, food addiction.

“Food addiction is often confused with other food disorders. Many people have more than one food disorder, but the cause and treatment of these medical conditions is significantly different,” said Ziedonis. “Our conference is an attempt to begin to help many more health care professionals learn to deal with this critical health problem.”

Pre-registration is required for the Oct. 22 conference, with continuing education credits available for health care professionals. To learn more and to register, visit

Free and open to the public with pre-registration requested, Be Mentally Well will take place Tuesday, Oct. 21, in Amphitheatre I from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. To learn more, visit