The Growing Link Between Alcoholism and Obesity

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Can salty, fatty, sugary foods be addictive? Recent neurological research has shown that overeating lights up the same brain pathways as drug use, so it’s not surprising that new research from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found a connection between a family history of alcohol addiction and obesity.

The team, lead by assistant professor of psychiatry, Dr. Richard A. Grucza,  mined data from two population sample studies: the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey (1991-1992) and the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (2001-2002). The combined 78,937 participants responded to the same question with respect to a variety of different relatives, from parents and siblings to children and half-siblings: “[Has your relative] been an alcoholic or problem drinker at any time in his/her life?”  Those answers were matched against the respondents’ body mass indices (BMIs), a metric for obesity that was calculated based on self-reported weight and height. (More on Study: The Complicated Link Between Wealth and Obesity)

What researchers found surprised them: there was an extremely strong correlation between the two in 2001-2002, especially for women. In fact, women with a family history of alcoholism were nearly 50% more likely to be obese, with a BMI of 30 or higher, than women with teetotaling relatives. The relationship was not statistically significant among men, and among the 1992 cohort, there was no correlation between obesity and a family history of alcoholism at all.

“There was an almost perfect overlap between the B.M.I. distribution of people without a family history of alcoholism and people with a family history of alcoholism,” Grucza told the New York Times about the 1992 group.

So why did the relationship between family history of alcoholism and obesity appear suddenly and only in women in 2002 without a previous correlation in 1992? (More on What’s the Ideal BMI for Longevity?)

“Our findings suggest that a link between FHA [family history of alcoholism] and obesity has emerged in recent years, particularly among women,” wrote the researchers in their article, which appeared Jan. 6 in the Archives of General Psychiatry. “The interaction between factors related to a FHA and the increasingly obesigenic environment may have resulted in a differential increase in the prevalence of obesity among individuals vulnerable to addiction. This may be specifically the result of a changing food environment and the increased availability of highly palatable foods.”

So the underlying behavior to use food to satisfy an addictive craving may have always existed, but food manufacturers are now simply more effective at peddling their wares, which in turn informs the obesity rate. And it’s certainly working; since the 1970s, the obesity rate has doubled from 15% of the US population to 33% in 2004. (More on Study: Obese Workers Cost Employers $73 Billion Per Year)

Additional research is needed, but it’s certainly food for thought: are we advertising neurologically vulnerable people into obesity?