Forget hockey or excessive politeness. The new great Canadian pastime is overeating, according to a new study that classifies 1 in 20 Canadians as a certified "food addict."
Compiled by a research team from Newfoundland's Memorial University, the study claims that 7 per cent of woman and 3 per cent of Canadian males – comprising 5 per cent of the overall Canadian population – meet the diagnostic criteria for food addiction.
The study's senior author, Guang Sun, defines food addiction as "compulsive overeating in harmful and unhealthy ways."
To reach their findings, the Memorial University team employed a measure known as the Yale Food Addiction Scale to assess symptoms of food addiction in 652 adults (415 women and 237 men) from Newfoundland and Labrador.
The study asked participants to supply true or false responses in regard to how often they engage in aberrant eating habits. Such as: "I eat to the point where I feel physically ill," "I need to eat more and more to get the feeling I want" and "I find myself constantly eating certain foods."
The subjects of the study were considered to be food-addicted if they showed three or more symptoms and their current relationship with food was proven to have caused significant distress or interfered with their ability to function in the daily routines of work, school or family life.
All told, "food addicts" were shown to be an average of 12 kilograms (26 pounds) heavier and had 8 per cent more body fat and trunk fat than non-addicted subjects. The food addicts also derived more of their daily calorie intake from fats and proteins.
The authors of the study say food addiction was evident in roughly 2 per cent of the participants who were of normal weight or underweight, and in 8 per cent of those subjects who were obese. "This is the first finding of its kind," said Sun.
But the big question remains: What makes people vulnerable to food addiction?
MRI studies of those individuals who score high on the Yale Food Scale suggest they respond to high-calorie, high-fat or high-sugar foods in much the same way "a cocaine addict would respond to being exposed to cocaine," said Dr. Valerie Taylor, chief psychiatrist at Women's College Hospital in Toronto.
Brain scans of food addicts show an increase in dopamine and other neurotransmitters traditionally linked to reward – and pleasure-seeking behaviour.
"People who have weight problems who don't feel that they have food addiction don't respond in the same way," said Taylor. "So it's not just a consequence of being overweight."
The villain in the food-addiction cycle is, not surprisingly, the food industry, which continues to churn out products both highly palatable and addictive, nutritional content be damned (have you tried the new grilled cheese and ketchup potato chips yet? They're delicious).
"There is a huge industry designed to increase our craving for food that we don't necessarily need, but want," said Taylor. "And it is these foods that are high in fat, high in protein that people become addicted to."
And with winter bearing down on us, it appears we are all happily munching our ways toward a bleak future and cardiovascular disease nearing an epidemic state.