Many of us struggle to maintain a healthy body weight. Most individuals who are overweight, find it difficult to lose weight and keep it off long term. While there are many different reasons why people can become overweight or obese, overeating is clearly a leading cause.
But, why do people overeat? And why do people typically opt to overeat foods that are high in calories and not very nutrient dense, like cookies and chips, as opposed to fruits and vegetables?
One reason why people may overeat, that has become of great interest, has to do with the hedonic (or pleasure) properties of our foods. Our modern food environment has changed in many ways. Not only are we now much more reliant on the use of processed foods, but we are also eating more foods with added sugars and fats. New research suggests that processed foods and additives, like sugars, fats and artificial sweeteners, can result in behavioural changes that resemble an addiction, and this can subsequently lead to a vicious cycle of overeating that is often coupled with dieting attempts, guilt, distress and depression.
These addiction-like eating behaviours include bingeing, feelings of “withdrawal” with trying to abstain from processed food, and craving of foods, especially carbohydrates, which can contribute to more overeating and further perpetuate the addiction.
Excessive eating of highly-processed foods is also associated with changes in the brain which responds in a way that is similar to the effects seen when using a drug, like heroin or cocaine. Brain changes include alterations in neurotransmitters release, neurotransmitter receptor sensitivity and even gene expression. Research also suggests that initial exposures to processed foods, during pregnancy and in early life, can have a long-term impact on the development of addictions. Further, excessive exposure to highly-processed foods early in life is associated with obesity later on, as well as a preference for high-fat foods.
This course will review the science of food addiction, and how it manifests in utero, children and adults. It will also offer guidelines on how to mitigate food addiction, and how to recognize and replace foods in one’s diet that can promote addictive overeating.
- To understand the biological basis of addictions
- To review our modern food environment in terms of the types of foods typically available and consumed
- To analyze differences between foods and drugs in terms of how we view them psychologically and socially
- To understand how exposure to certain types of foods early in life can have an impact on brain development and behaviours
- To review the empirical research studies on food addiction
- To apply information regarding methods to recognize and reduce added sugars in one’s diet
About the Speaker: Dr. Nicole Avena
Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction. She is a pioneer in the field of food addiction, and it was her seminal research work that jump-started this exciting new field of exploration in medicine and nutrition. She is also an expert in diet during pregnancy, and childhood nutrition.
Dr. Avena received a Ph.D. in Psychology and Neuroscience from Princeton University in 2006. She then completed her postdoctoral fellowship in 2010 at the prestigious Rockefeller University in New York City, an all-research institution that lays claim to having had 24 Nobel Prize winners on its staff over the years.
Dr. Avena presently is Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and a Visiting Professor in Health Psychology at Princeton University. She has published over 90 scholarly journal articles on topics related to diet, nutrition and overeating, and she frequently presents her research findings at scientific conferences and University symposia. Her research achievements have been honoured by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She has received research funding from prestigious sources, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Eating Disorders Association.
Dr. Avena’s book, Why Diets Fail (2014, Ten Speed Press) reviews the research on food addiction and provides a way in which people can remove added sugars and carbohydrates from their diet. She has another best-selling book, What to Eat When You’re Pregnant (2015, Ten Speed Press) that provides moms-to-be with nutritional advice on what to eat to ensure they and their baby are healthy. Her latest book, What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler (2018), covers nutrition for babies who are just beginning to eat and offers science-based advice and practical tips on how to get your baby to eat healthy foods, like vegetables.
Dr. Avena is a sought-after speaker, and she has been lauded by her colleagues and the public for her ability to explain complex scientific principles and research findings to a lay audience. Dr. Avena regularly makes public speaking appearances to discuss her research and discoveries throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. She is regularly asked to speak to special-interest groups, industry groups, and schools. She regularly appears on the Dr. Oz Show, and she has also appeared on The Doctors, Good Day NY, Home and Family, and CNN, as well as many local news programs including FOX5 San Diego, KTLA, WGN, and the local NY stations. She has also been a guest on several radio programs and podcasts and has been filmed for several documentaries on the obesity epidemic. Her work has been featured on the cover of National Geographic (Sept ’17), as well as in Time Magazine, Bloomberg Business Week, The New York Times, Shape, Men’s Health, Details, and many other periodicals. Dr. Avena is a member of the Random House Speakers Bureau. She has a TED-ED talk, How Sugar Affects Your Brain, was ranked #2 most watched. Her video has been praised by educators and public health groups. She consults for many policy groups, pharmaceutical companies and baby-food manufacturers.
Dr. Avena has a blog on Psychology Today called Food Junkie, which explains relevant research findings in an accessible way. She also blogs for The Huffington Post. You can also follow her on Twitter or Facebook.