Food addiction stigma scrutinized

Food addiction, which has been implicated as a factor in obesity, may lead to stigmatization of the obese.
Food addiction, which has been implicated as a factor in obesity, may lead to stigmatization of the obese. Photo by Joy Shan.

Research out of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity is the first to examine the stigmatization of food addiction.

In a study conducted online, researchers found that while subjects viewed food addiction more favorably than other addictions such as alcohol, drug or tobacco dependence, the label increased stigma against obese individuals. The findings add to the growing body of research detailing the pervasiveness of weight-related biases and calls for more legal protection for obese individuals, said study co-author Rebecca Puhl GRD ’04, director of research and weight stigma initiatives at the Rudd Center. The study appears in the February issue of the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

“There is a lot of research showing that certain types of food can trigger processes that are very similar to drug and alcohol addiction,” Puhl said. “There is increasing evidence that maybe food addiction is contributing to obesity. What we didn’t know was how the label of being called a food addict may affect public attitudes.”

In the first part of the study, 659 participants answered a range of questions about their feelings towards various individuals including food addicts, obese food addicts, cocaine addicts, smokers and the physically disabled. Results showed that food addiction carried less stigma than other addictions like cocaine, but intensified prejudice against the obese. In the second part of the study, which also demonstrated that food addiction was viewed less negatively than other addictions, 570 subjects answered questions about a picture of a thin or obese male labeled as either addicted to food, tobacco or alcohol.

The findings add to a long line of research at the Rudd Center examining the pathology and clinical symptoms of food addiction, said Mark Gold, professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida College of Medicine. The Yale Food Addiction Scale, which the Rudd Center released in 2009, is a 27-question survey that clinicians use to diagnose food addiction. Two years later, Rudd Center researchers demonstrated that food dependence activates similar neural pathways as addiction to drugs or alcohol. The current study adds to this body of research by examining the social impact of the food addiction label, Gold said.

There are currently no federal laws prohibiting weight-based discrimination, and Puhl said this lack of formal protection contributes to social stigmatization. She added that weight stigma is especially prevalent in entertainment and news media.

“I think we can do a much better job of challenging weight-based stereotypes and really depicting people who are obese in more respectful ways,” she added.

This research comes at a time of increasing publicity for overeating disorders, said Marc Potenza ’87 GRD ’93 MED ’94, a professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine who was not involved in the study. Binge eating disorder, a condition similar to food addiction, is included in the first draft of the upcoming edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Potenza said he hopes formal recognition will encourage more people to identify the condition and seek treatment.

He added that the scientific community has not yet done enough research to decide whether food addiction has a place in the DSM.

“I think it would be premature to shut the door on food addiction,” he said

Puhl said she hopes to follow up the study by examining how the food addiction label impacts different populations. There is already evidence that women tend to be more vulnerable to weight stigmatization than men, and Puhl said she wants to examine how public attitudes change depending on factors including gender and race.

While official figures are not yet available about the prevalence of food addiction, a 2009 Rudd Center study found that about 11 percent of “predominantly normal-weight students” may be labeled as food addicts under the Yale Food Addiction Scale.

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