Now that we are firmly into the New Year, you may be beginning to think about your eating habits a bit more than usual. And you may notice that you find certain food irresistible—so much so that you not only indulge, but overindulge, knowing full well that you’ll regret it when it’s over.
People who have problems with alcohol or illicit drugs exhibit these same behaviors. Is it fair, or even appropriate, to equate the” sugarholic” with someone who suffers from alcoholism or a heroin addiction?
Is there really such a thing as an addiction that leaves us powerless when faced with sizzling hot fries with a side of ketchup or is all this talk simply a worn out excuse…rationalization?
There clearly are some differences between food and drugs, including how they’re perceived socially. But they both can be extremely self-destructive.
And when we compare the underlying biology of substance addiction to food addiction, the similarities are significant and beginning to gain a great deal of attention.
When a person with a drug addiction prepares to self-administer their drug of choice, certain neural pathways in the brain (referred to as reward circuits) predictably “light up” and produce the desired “high.” The same areas of the brain are activated when we see, smell, think about, or are about to tear into certain foods we find irresistible1. In a 2010 landmark paper published in the prestigious journal, Nature Neuroscience, the authors concluded that:
“Overconsumption of palatable food triggers addiction-like neuroadaptive responses in brain reward circuits and drives compulsive eating. Common hedonic mechanisms may therefore underlie obesity and drug addiction1.”
There are several reasons food addiction can be so devastating. First, as opposed to drugs where you can stop exposure, you can’t stop eating. In fact, your brain is telling your body to take in as much food energy as possible as rapidly as you can because, up until 100 years ago or so, times of feast for humans were typically followed by times of famine. This powerful drive can paralyze our ability to make healthy food choices. This is partly because the reward circuitry is so powerful, and partly because the rewarded state becomes the new normal and we must get higher and higher levels of junk food to feel good. Otherwise, we feel bad and hungry.
Perhaps worst of all, foods that are being shown to be most addictive tend to be jam-packed with calories. Therefore when combined with our modern Western diets, they’re inherently bad for our overall health and typically lead to obesity.
Let me be clear: Food addiction is not the same as overeating. Just as drug addiction involves only certain types of drugs (for example, opioids, but not antibiotics), a recent study has identified particular food types that elicit addictive-like behaviors. In addition to behavioral and neurological similarities between the person who can’t stop at one serving of cake, and the person who drinks to get drunk, there are genetic parallels as well, associated with the neuro transmitter, dopamine.
In other words, certain foods are highly addictive, and certain people are more vulnerable to those highly addictive foods.
Two separate studies showed the top 10 “problem” foods were almost identical2,3.
In study one, which consisted of 120 people (18-23 years old), the top 10 addictive foods were chocolate, ice cream, French fries, pizza, cookies, chips, cake, buttered popcorn, cheeseburgers, and muffins. Sound familiar?
In study two, which consisted of 398 people (18-65 years old), the top 10 included pizza, chocolate, chips, cookies, ice cream, French fries, cheeseburgers, non-diet sodas, cake, and cheese.
Most of these foods are highly processed, containing large amounts of fat as well as an unnaturally high glycemic loads (GL) thanks to ingredients like sugar and high fructose corn syrup, which causes blood glucose levels to quickly spike. Several are salty, too, but high fat and high GL each create a significantly stronger addictive draw than salt does.
So, in addictive foods, just as in addictive drugs:
The key components are concentrated (for an effectively high dose),
They activate reward circuits in the brain, and
They hit the brain quickly, which reinforces the addictive connection between the food and the reward.
It’s time we acknowledge that food addiction is a real thing, and it isn’t funny. And indeed, as you can see by the referenced studies, the scientific world is rapidly moving to that position.
The foods most often involved with addictive eating behaviors are foods that can destroy our health. Are we then helpless to let our food addictions destroy us and our families? The answer is no, but like drug addictions, you better take it very seriously and have a plan.
I will write about specific strategies to break food addictions and deal with hunger in subsequent blog posts, but for now, avoidance and being intentional are important places to start.
You must get serious! Get addictive foods out of your house! If you are addicted to them, it’s likely your children will be too. Do it for them! At the grocery store, shop the periphery of the store rather than turning down the inner aisles, where most of the highly processed foods are shelved. Also, avoid gifting cookies and candies. Instead, give a year’s subscription to monthly shipments of fresh fruits or vegetables.
It’s important to understand that feeling deprived and hungry can derail any diet; but when the foods in front of us are healthy and still delicious, we can begin to get on a healthy path.
Always remember the Hippocrates quote, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
I love you all and hope you have a beautiful day…Ski
- Gearhardt A, et al. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2001 Aug;68(8):808-16.
- Schulte E, et al. PLoS One. 2015;10(2):0117959.
- Davis C, et al. Physiol Behave. 2013 Jun;118:63-9.