Lies, Damn Lies, and Questionnaires

130415_CCF_ChickenWings_picPart of activists’ decade-long quest to declare foods “addictive” like cocaine and other drugs are attempts to define what their dubious “food addiction” — supposedly an industry-caused reason for obesity — looks like. After all, it can’t be anything but total abstinence, since people who go cold turkey on all foods will starve to death. (Some have tried, with predictably tragic results.)

Activists of various stripes have proposed several such definitions. Vegan activist Neal Barnard of the PETA-supported Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine proposed that “refusing to adopt a vegetarian diet” was proof of food addiction. In 2009, academics affiliated with the soda tax headquarters, Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, developed a Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS), claiming it could diagnose “food addiction.”

And, as a recent article by a researcher with George Mason University’s Statistical Assessments Service (STATS) notes, the YFAS may be no more useful than the vegan’s. Activists frequently claim that “food addiction” causes obesity, but this illustrates a problem with the YFAS — it misclassifies healthy people as addicts. The author of the STATS post (a Ph.D.) explains:

The reality for food addiction as defined is that it’s not as predictive as one might hope. Obese and overweight people are more likely to suffer from “food addiction”, but underweight and normal weight people also meet the criteria. So the question really becomes: what significance or value does the “diagnosis” add to the discussion about helping people live healthier lives?

Neuroscientists from Cambridge University skeptical of “food addiction” expressed similar concerns about the YFAS in a recent article. They wrote, “It is insufficient to surmise, because some people score highly on the YFAS, that FA [food addiction] is necessarily a valid and unitary concept.” Without real rigor, whether or not people have high YFAS scores doesn’t tell us much.

But of course the primary purpose of YFAS and the general “food addiction” hysteria isn’t to treat people’s health conditions, but rather to lay the groundwork for food litigation and food regulation. Kelly Brownell, the tax-loving Duke University dean who co-developed the YFAS, said as much, telling a conference panel that addiction notions are a “game-changing concept” that “could activate a whole new field of potential players” — namely trial lawyers to sue food companies for selling stuff people want to buy and eat. It’s an unappetizing prospect.

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